Who’s liable, what causes plane crashes, and what to do if it happens to you
When a commercial plane crash happens, we all know about it because it’s big news. And although the thought is terrifying that hundreds of people could perish in a single crash, the reality is that commercial plane crashes are pretty rare.
In general, traveling by commercial airline is very safe.
Private aviation is slightly less so. Some statistics suggest that flying in a private plane is as dangerous as riding in a car. Although air travel is safer than ever before, there’s still risk involved.
A “private flight” is when the owner of an aircraft flies it for private use, or for use by a friend or family member. In other words, it’s a flight that’s taken without buying a ticket through a commercial airline.
There are also private planes that are owned by a person or organization and can be chartered for a specific trip or itinerary.
Plane crash statistics
The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) recorded 15 fatal airliner accidents with 556 deaths in 2018. Twelve of these were passenger flights and 3 were cargo. The number of fatalities is mostly attributed to the Lion Air crash that happened near Indonesia in which 189 people were killed.
Other crashes with significant numbers of fatalities have included:
- Boeing 737-201 operated by Cubana crashed outside Havana airport: 112 fatalities
- US-Bangla Airlines flight crashed on landing in Nepal: 51 fatalities
- Saratov Airlines plane crashed in Russia: 71 fatalities
- Aseman Airlines flight crashed in Iran: 66 fatalities
What is general aviation?
General aviation (GA) includes all civilian flying except passenger airlines. There are more than 198,000 general aviation aircraft registered in the U.S., and there are nearly 500,000 certified pilots who fly GA aircraft. GA and air taxis logged more than 25 million hours in 2017.
GA aircraft include:
- Single engine
- Turbo prop
- Turbo jet
- Experimental (amateur-built)
- Light sport aircraft
Causes of aviation accidents
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the top causes of fatal GA accidents are:
- Loss of control during a flight
- Controlled flight into terrain
- System component failure (powerplant)
- Fuel-related complications
- System component failure (non-powerplant)
- Unintended flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)
- Midair collisions
- Low-altitude operations
However, the majority of aviation accidents and plane crashes fall into one of 3 reasons:
- Pilot error
- Bad weather
- Aircraft malfunction or mechanical failure
Let’s explore each of these 3 causes in more depth.
The FAA requires a private pilot to have a minimum of 40 hours’ flight time before becoming licensed. To become a licensed pilot, you must also pass a medical exam, knowledge test, final flight test, and TSA authorization.
Still, everyone makes mistakes—including pilots.
Car accidents happen even though the vast majority of drivers have driven far more than 40 hours. Pilot inexperience is a huge factor in small plane accidents. Just like the driver of a car must know how to handle an icy patch on the road, a pilot must be skilled and experienced in dealing with an unexpected event that crops up. Storms, wind, and other elements can make for hazardous flying.
Likewise, some mechanical malfunctions can be successfully handled mid-flight. If the pilot knows the mechanics of the plane and can figure out how to properly and quickly respond to the problem, they might be able to salvage the flight without incident.
If there’s a severe storm, a large jetliner can usually climb to a higher altitude that allows it to soar over the storm. But a small plane is more susceptible to sudden bad weather conditions. A lightning strike could cause complete electrical failure or other problems.
Any small plane pilot needs to be tuned in to weather conditions, both actual and anticipated, and modify their flight course accordingly.
Plane travel is a double-edged sword. Although a commercial flight is much safer than a small aircraft flight, if a crash were to occur you’re much more likely to survive if you’re on a small plane than a large jetliner.
A small plane could force a landing in a rural or unprepared area, whereas a commercial jetliner likely can’t, due to its size and speed of travel. A small plane has a better chance of managing to coast to an unexpected landing. Even so, an equipment malfunction can lead to tragedy. Even the most experienced pilot can only do so much if the plane’s equipment fails.
Who’s liable in a California plane crash?
If you’ve lost a loved one in a plane crash, you probably want to know who’s at fault. If you’re considering wrongful death damages, the responsibility for the crash will be the most important factor as you begin a lawsuit.
Likewise, if you’ve survived a plane crash and are now seeking damages for personal injuries, liability will matter for your case, too.
You should know there are 2 ways to establish liability in most California plane crashes:
Answers might not come easily because a flight crash investigation could take months. Whether or not there are legal claims, agencies like the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) want to know what went wrong in order to prevent future accidents.
If the crash involves a private plane, there could be negligence on the part of the pilot or owner of the plane.
Negligence could be attributed to the:
- Plane owner
- Maintenance company
- Federal government
The federal government employs air traffic controllers to direct and guide pilots through the airspace. If they make a mistake that results in a crash, the government could be the negligent party.
2. Strict product liability
You might have a strict products liability claim if the reason for the accident was an equipment or mechanical failure. If that happened, the defendant would be either the manufacturer of the plane or the manufacturer of one of the components.
In general, a defective product case could be for:
- Design defect: A properly made product that was dangerous in the way it was designed, and a product that doesn’t perform as expected when used in the manner in which it was intended.
- Marketing defect: This would involve a part or process that doesn’t have the correct warnings (failure to warn) or instructions.
- Manufacturing defect: The product was safe as designed, but it was manufactured improperly and the result didn’t reflect the design.
Again, a plane is constructed with hundreds or thousands of parts, many of which come from a variety of manufacturers. Once the investigation is complete, the investigating agency should make a statement about what caused the crash.
Types of damages after a plane crash
In any personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit (including aviation accident cases), there are 3 types of damages:
- Economic: This the dollar value associated with any expenses you incurred as a result of the injury. It could include medical expenses, funeral expenses, lost wages, property loss, or other items with associated costs.
- Non-economic: A claim that doesn’t have a specific monetary value is non-economic — it could include pain and suffering, loss of consortium, emotional distress, or other kinds of issues.
- Punitive damages: These damages are assessed as a punishment to the defendant, or to serve as a deterrent from repeating the action that caused the injury. Typically, punitive damages are only awarded in cases against large corporations (like airlines), but if the behavior was especially egregious, intentional, or malicious, you could be awarded punitive damages against a private person or small company.
What to do if you’ve been in a California aviation accident
An aviation accident can be legally complicated — there can be several parties involved, including big companies like airlines, the federal government, and others. The accident report will tell you the cause of the crash (if it’s able to be determined), but it won’t necessarily tell you who’s liable.
That’s your lawyer’s job.
Even if it’s a small aircraft crash and the injuries and liability are straightforward, there will be differences between how you handle a plane crash, as opposed to a car accident.
That’s why it’s crucial to find a personal injury lawyer who knows exactly what to look for, how to file an injury claim, and who to file a claim against.
We invite you to use the free Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory as your starting point to find a California lawyer who will take your case from start to finish to get the results you need.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.