Here’s what you need to know about aviation accidents in the Hoosier State and the law
About 40% of the general population reports some fear of flying.
Though the fear of flying through the sky in an aluminum tube at 600 miles per hour is understandable, traveling by plane is statistically quite safe.
According to the National Safety Council, you have a 1 in 205,552 chance of dying in a plane crash. To put this in perspective, you have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car accident.
“We know who is in every single plane around you, who is controlling the airspace around you, how the plane has been maintained,” explained aviation expert Christine Negroni. “You don’t have that in a car, train, or bus.&rdquo
Despite heavy regulation, plane crashes and aviation accidents do happen.
So who’s liable when a plane falls from the sky?
Why do planes crash?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates commercial aircraft and general aviation (non-passenger aircraft) crashes.
According to the NTSB, the most common causes of commercial aircraft accidents include:
- Pilot error
- Poor maintenance
- Air traffic control error
The most common causes of general aviation accidents include:
- Inflight loss of control
- System component failure
- Poor weather conditions
- Mid-air collisions
- Low-altitude operations
Interestingly, a review of plane crash data found that a significant number of crashes were the result of crew members being distracted from their flying duties. In response to this finding, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed the so-called Sterile Cockpit Rule, which prohibits crew members from carrying out non-essential activities (including idle chit chat) during the critical phases of flight (normally below 10,000 feet).
On October 31, 1994, the pilot operating American Eagle Flight 4184 prepared to descend when the plane suddenly lurched to the right. The pilot fought for control, but the plane rolled over and then dove at full speed directly into a soybean field in Roselawn, Indiana.
The subsequent investigation conducted by the NTSB found that ice buildup on the wings contributed to the crash. The report placed blame on the manufacturer of the plane for not studying the effects of ice on its planes after other planes had similar problems. The report also found that the FAA failed to disseminate timely information about flight hazards during icy conditions.
Families of crash victims were angered by the lack of timely information provided to them after the accident and their activism led to the passage of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, which requires the federal government and airlines to get information to families of crash victims faster and to respond more fully to their questions.
Who’s liable when a plane crashes?
There are several parties who may be responsible when a plane crash, including:
- The pilot. The pilot may be liable for the plane crash if they acted carelessly and their carelessness caused the accident. For example, a pilot might be liable if they engaged in a non-essential conversation at a critical part of the flight and the distraction caused the accident.
- The owner of the plane. The owner of the plane may be liable for the pilot’s actions under the theory of respondeat superior.
- The manufacturer of the plane or plane component. If a defective product caused the accident, the manufacturer may be held liable.
- The maintenance or repair facility. Individuals and companies who maintain and repair planes are required to follow strict guidelines. Failure to follow these guidelines may result in liability.
- The federal government. Air traffic controllers direct and guide pilots through international airspace. If an air traffic controller fails to perform their duties properly, the federal government may be held liable.
How to prove negligence
In most cases, the legal theory used to establish liability in a plane crash will be negligence. To establish negligence in Indiana, a plaintiff must prove 4 elements:
- Duty. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant (pilot, airplane owner, etc.) owed them a duty of care.
- Breach. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care. A breach occurs when the defendant fails to meet the standard of care required.
- Causation. The plaintiff must prove that the injury wouldn’t have occurred but for the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. The plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered some harm.
If the accident was the result of a defective product, the plaintiff may file a product liability lawsuit. There are 3 types of defects:
- Design defect. A product that is inherently dangerous even when manufactured and used properly suffers from defective design.
- Manufacturing defect. A product that would have been safe but for some error that occurred during the manufacturing process suffers from a manufacturing defect.
- Marketing defect. A product that doesn’t have proper warnings or instructions suffers from a marketing defect.
Twenty-six members of the University of Evansville basketball team were killed on December 13, 1977, when Air Indiana Flight 216 crashed at the Evansville Regional Airport in Evansville, Indiana, shortly after takeoff.
The NTSB investigation found that the crash occurred because the pilot failed to remove the gust locks before takeoff, and the overloaded baggage compartment shifted the plane’s center of gravity to the back end.
Multiple lawsuits were filed against the pilot and the plane owner on the basis of negligence.
Tragically, the only University of Evansville basketball player who was not on the plane was killed in a car accident 2 weeks after the plane crash.
What damages can be recovered after a plane crash?
In any Indiana personal injury lawsuit, there are 3 types of damages that plaintiffs can recover:
- Economic damages are damages that a court can calculate by reviewing records. Medical expenses, lost wages, and property damage are all examples of economic damages.
- Noneconomic damages are damages that don’t have a specific monetary value. Pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of consortium are all examples of noneconomic damages.
- Punitive damages. Punitive damages are assessed by the court for the purpose of punishing the defendant and deterring similar behavior in the future. As a result, punitive damages are only awarded in cases where the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent or malicious.
Plane crashes and wrongful death lawsuits
Contrary to popular belief, 95% of plane crashes have survivors. Of course, we’ve all watched the news enough to know that many times sometimes plane crashes result in fatalities.
When someone is killed in a plane crash, certain members of their family (the surviving spouse, children, and other dependents) can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
A wrongful death lawsuit is similar to a personal injury lawsuit in the sense that the surviving family member will need to prove that the defendant was liable for the accident (just as the passenger would have had to prove that the defendant was liable had they survived).
The difference is that, if the claim is successful, the family member will receive compensation for the loss of the passenger in the form of:
- Reasonable medical expenses
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Damages for the loss of the passengers love and companionship
What to do if you’ve been in an Indiana plane crash
Plane crash litigation is a complex and niche area of law. Plane crashes often involve several parties, including the federal government, as well as technical investigations and reports.
If you’re in Indiana, find an experienced personal injury attorney using our free legal directory.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.