What are your legal options following a plane crash or aviation injury?
On July 10, 1991, a commuter plane crashed into 2 houses in the quiet neighborhood of Ensley in Birmingham, Alabama.
The cause of the crash was attributed to the captain's decision to attempt an instrument landing system (ILS) approach in a severe thunderstorm, resulting in a loss of control of the plane.
“We were in a flat spin,” recalls passenger Mabry Rogers. “The plane took the roof of the house across the street. There was a great deal of anguish in the cabin from all of us. I remember thinking, you don't survive a plane crash."
The crash killed 13 out of 15 people in the plane and injured 4 on the ground.
Plane crashes are extremely rare, but, as Mabry Rogers can attest to, they do happen. Find out what legal options exist for plane crash survivors as well as the loved ones of those lost in a plane crash.
How common are plane crashes?
To understand your odds of being involved in a plane crash, it’s important to understand the difference between commercial and general aviation flights:
- Commercial aviation refers to scheduled flights that involve the transportation of passengers or cargo. The most common commercial planes are the Boeing 747, 777, and 737.
- General aviation refers to all non-scheduled flights. This category includes private aircraft, such as light-sport aircraft, turboprops, and rotorcraft.
The chances of being involved in a commercial aviation accident are extremely rare. One estimate places your chances at 1 in 11 million. What’s more, the odds of being killed in a commercial airline flight are closer to 1 in 3.37 billion.
General aviation accidents are much more common, but still extremely rare. For decades, the fatality rate for general aviation accidents has hovered just over 1 death per 100,000 hours flown.
The bottom line:
You’re much more likely to be involved in an accident on the drive to the airport than you are once you board your plane.
Common causes of plane crashes
Just like cars, planes crash for all kinds of reasons, from operator error to manufacturing defects.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the most common causes of commercial aviation accidents include:
- Pilot error
- Poor maintenance
- Air traffic control error
The most common causes of general aviation accidents include:
- In-flight loss of control
- System component failure
- Poor weather conditions
- Mid-air collisions
- Low-altitude operations
Following an investigation, the NTSB blamed the crash on pilot error. Specifically, the captain:
- Failed to correctly program the aircraft computer
- Failed to monitor the plane’s altitude
- Failed to communicate important information to the co-pilot
- Failed to abort the landing when it became apparent the plane was in trouble
The NTSB also criticized UPS for failing to update the software on a ground proximity warning system, which would have given the crew an earlier indication that they were too close to the ground.
Can I sue following a plane crash?
As is the case with car crashes, passengers involved in plane crashes can file personal injury lawsuits to recover damages if they can prove that someone else was at fault for their accident. Crew members can typically file workers’ compensation claims to recover damages.
Let’s take a closer look at your legal options following a plane crash:
Filing a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence after a plane crash
If a plane crash is caused by pilot error or some other human error, an injured passenger may be able to file a lawsuit based on negligence. A negligence claim alleges that someone else’s carelessness caused your injury.
To establish negligence in Alabama, the plaintiff needs to prove the following 4 elements:
- Duty. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care. Airlines are considered “common carriers.” Common carriers have a duty to exercise the “highest degree of care,” which is the degree of care that a very careful person would use under the same circumstances.
- Breach. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care.
- Causation. The plaintiff must prove that their injury wouldn’t have occurred but for the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. The plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered some harm.
Filing a product liability lawsuit after a plane crash
A product liability lawsuit alleges that a defective product caused the plane crash. A product liability lawsuit may be based on any of the following defects:
- Design defect. A product that is inherently dangerous even when manufactured and used properly is defectively designed.
- Manufacturing defect. A product that would have been safe but for some error that occurred during the manufacturing process has a manufacturing defect.
- Marketing defect. A product that doesn’t have proper warnings or instructions is an example of a marketing defect.
Pittman suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns to his face and arms. The plane's pilot, Roger James of Daphne, also survived after suffering 1st and 2nd-degree burns.
Filing a lawsuit under the federal tort claims act after a plane crash
The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is responsible for directing and guiding pilots through international airspace. If an FAA employee fails to perform their duties properly, the federal government may be liable for any resulting injuries or deaths.
When suing the federal government, plaintiffs must do so under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FCTA). Filing a lawsuit under the FCTA is a lot like filing a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence, however, plaintiffs are required to follow special rules and procedures.
Filing a wrongful death lawsuit after a plane crash
If someone is killed in a plane crash, their surviving relatives can receive compensation for their loss by filing a wrongful death lawsuit. As is the case with other personal injury lawsuits, the relative will need to prove that someone else was at fault for the accident in order to recover damages.
Filing a workers’ compensation claim after a plane crash
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that provides financial benefits to employees who are injured on the job.
If an employee of an airline (such as a pilot or flight attendant) is injured in a plane crash, they may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim. Additionally, the family members of an employee killed in a plane crash may be able to receive workers’ compensation death benefits.
The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996
The purpose of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act is to provide support to families of passengers involved in commercial aviation accidents.
Under the Act, the NTSB must carry out a number of duties following a plane crash. For example, the NTSB must:
- Provide family members with the name and number of the director of family support services who will be the primary point of contact within the federal government.
- Designate an independent nonprofit organization to coordinate mental health services for the passengers’ families.
- Contact families of victims and meet with family members who traveled to the crash location, as well as provide travel assistance and physical care while there.
- Coordinate with family members to arrange memorial services.
- Ensure that the airline has a staff to handle calls, provide information, and answer questions from family members.
- Create a meeting place (usually a hotel or conference center) for crash survivors, family members, and friends to gather and receive updates.
Alabama statute of limitations for aviation accident lawsuits
It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have an unlimited amount of time to file a lawsuit after a plane crash.
Alabama requires plaintiffs to file personal injury claims within 2 years of being injured in most situations. The same 2-year statute of limitations exists for workers’ compensation claims and claims filed under the FTCA.
If you fail to file your claim before the time limit expires, your claim will be forever barred. As a result, it’s important to meet with an attorney as soon as possible following a plane crash.