It’s unlikely but possible, so you should know what your odds are of being successful in a lawsuit if you’re injured.
Who’s at fault if a random piece of space debris falls on your head? It would be hard to determine liability, and here’s why.
Are you likely to get hit by an asteroid falling from the sky? No. No no no no no. Of all the things we have to worry about, this should be pretty low on your list.
It’s impossible to keep accurate statistics on the likelihood of being hit by space debris, but scientists and astronomers have estimated that any person’s individual odds of being hit by space debris like a falling satellite or space junk is about one in several trillion.
“Space debris” is a man-made object that is no longer in use but is left orbiting the Earth. The particles could be as small as a tiny fleck of paint, or could be significantly larger. They fall at high speed, which means that even a small piece of space debris—also known as space junk—could harm operational satellites or spacecraft. Most space debris burns up as it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, which means the chances of a person on the surface being hit by an object large enough to cause injury are slim to none.
However, if you were injured by an object falling from space, who is liable for your injuries? This article will unpack this and related issues so you can figure out what to or how to find legal advice if you’re in this situation.
NASA reports that there are about 100 million pieces of debris orbiting the Earth at any given time, and 23,000 are estimated to be larger than a softball.
SpaceX rocket explosion in Texas in 2023
In April 2022, the Starship/Super Heavy SpaceX rocket lifted off from its launchpad in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It had received FAA approval the previous Friday as a full prototype configuration.
Within the first four minutes, the Starship failed to detach from the booster. It exploded over the Boca Chica beach, which ended its 90-minute planned voyage to a destination north of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
Shortly thereafter, Port Isabel residents reported seeing particulates and ash falling from the sky and settling in the streets and on their homes. One individual described the substance as feeling like sand, but finer than typical local sand.
No one was harmed by the falling launch debris, though some are concerned about potential environmental and biological impacts.
While this incident did cause harm, it could be alarming to people who fear a similar incident in the future.
Space junk found in Australian sheep paddock
On July 9, 2022, people in the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales heard a bang. They thought that it could’ve been caused by the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere after its launch in late 2020.
Then, a sheep farmer nearby discovered an object wedged into his paddock. Fortunately, no sheep (or people) were injured. An Australian astrophysicist said it was likely an object made of carbon and aluminum composites and claimed there is a 10% chance that a person on Earth would be hit by space junk sometime in the next decade. He said that’s because the large pieces don’t always burn up in the atmosphere and why it’s crucial to track debris.
Who is liable for falling space junk?
It’s not entirely clear who is responsible for space debris-related injuries since this is such an uncommon occurrence. However, the Space Liability Convention (or Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects) does provide some guidance on the issue.
The Convention holds that a company is only liable for injuries from space debris if the company was negligent in some way.
The entities that could be defendants in a space debris lawsuit include:
- Commercial space industry
- Federally owned company like NASA
- State-owned company
- Private company like SpaceX
Negligence is the failure to exercise the appropriate level of care.
For a plaintiff to succeed in a negligence case, the defendant must have owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. Secondly, the defendant must have breached that duty of care. Thirdly, the defendant must have caused the harm to occur, and fourthly, that causation must have resulted in damages.
In other words, the plaintiff (injured person) must prove that the defendant’s action or inaction caused the injury. In some cases, this is fairly straightforward — for example, in some car accidents. If you were properly crossing the street in a marked crosswalk and were hit by a car driven by someone who was speeding and failed to stop at the crosswalk, it’s clear that they were negligent. Even if you shared some responsibility (perhaps you didn’t look both ways before crossing or saw the car coming and didn’t wait to make sure it would stop), it would still be the driver who bears the bulk of the liability.
If you’re hit by a random object falling from the sky, it would be hard to claim that the plaintiff shares liability. After all... if you’re walking down the street and minding your own business and a random object hits you out of nowhere, there’s really nothing you could have done to prevent it.
But it also would be very difficult to prove where it came from, what company is responsible, and whether the company is negligent.
SpaceX, the notorious private company that designs, builds and launches spacecraft, was founded by Elon Musk in 2002. SpaceX has facilities in California, Florida, and Texas. It’s likely that its operations will expand and there will be a greater number of rocket launches in future years.
There is a risk of launch debris like the nosecones of rockets that could strike people or other aircraft on their way down.
It can be tricky to file a lawsuit against a government agency (including NASA) because it is subject to different rules and procedures than if you’re suing a private company. SpaceX is a private company, so a lawsuit would follow the same rules of civil procedure as any other private entity.
If you were injured by falling space debris, you can contact a personal injury lawyer for guidance and to see if you might have a claim.