Some aviation accidents happen on the ground, too
We don’t hear much in the news about aviation accident lawsuits.
There’s a reason for that... it’s because although a large plane crash is newsworthy and often results in mass casualties, it’s also very rare. The majority of aviation lawsuits are not related to plane crashes. They are because of injuries that happen because of a slip and fall, injuries related to luggage or cargo, or runway accidents that never make the news.
You might remember a notable tragedy that happened in Kentucky in 2006. On August 27th, 2006, Comair Flight 5191 departed Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport in Fayette County bound for Atlanta, Georgia.
While such tragedies are shocking and devastating, occupants of small private planes are far more likely to suffer crash-related injuries based on aviation statistics. In July 2021, a 2-seater plane crashed in Lexington. In that instance, the plane hit a power pole and the 2 occupants suffered minor injuries.
You might also recall Air Canada Flight 797, which resulted in 23 fatalities in Kentucky in 1983. The flight, traveling from Dallas to Montreal, caught fire and filled the cabin with toxic smoke. The plane made an emergency landing at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. While 23 people survived, 23 others died of smoke inhalation and exposure to flames. This incident prompted new safety measures, including smoke detectors in airplane bathrooms, strip lights to mark paths to exit, and emergency response instructions for passengers seated in exit rows above a wing.
Common causes of aviation accidents
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lists pilot error, bad weather, and aircraft malfunction or mechanical failure as the main causes of aviation accidents.
Additional top causes of general aviation accidents include:
- 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
A pilot is required to have a minimum of 40 hours’ flight experience in order to become licensed. Licensing also includes a medical exam, knowledge test, flight test, and TSA authorization.
When a pilot makes a mistake while flying a plane, it doesn’t always mean they didn’t know how to fly. Sometimes, a mechanical malfunction can be handled mid-flight, but an inexperienced pilot or one who isn’t familiar with that specific aircraft might not be able to successfully and quickly respond to the problem.
Think of it this way:
Have you ever made a mistake while driving a car?
Even an experienced driver makes the occasional poor judgment when behind the wheel, and piloting a plane is no different. Perhaps you’ve taken a turn too quickly or misjudged another vehicle’s speed — these things happen when driving a car and flying a plane is no different.
A large jetliner will usually climb to a high enough altitude to avoid a severe storm brewing below. But a small plane doesn’t always have this ability and therefore is much more likely to have problems in bad weather, like poor visibility or a lightning strike that could cause electrical failure.
If a small plane needs to perform an emergency landing in a rural or unprepared area, it could likely do so successfully. But a commercial jetliner likely can’t because of its size and speed. Even experienced pilots are limited if a plane’s equipment fails.
Types of aviation accidents
1. Plane crashes
Many aviation crashes involve small planes, but there are rare cases involving large commercial aircraft crashes like TWA Flight 128 and Air Canada Flight 797.
2. Non-crash injuries
Sometimes, a plane will encounter turbulence or come to a sudden stop on the runway, and even though the plane doesn’t crash, passengers could be jostled or bumped around in the cabin.
You might suffer an injury by bumping your head against the window or a seat. There have also been minor injuries from tray tables that were not correctly secured, or there could even be injuries related to items falling out of overhead storage bins.
Passengers can also suffer injuries from slip and fall accidents on a flight. This could happen while walking to the bathroom, or while boarding or deplaning. The airline staff is responsible for cleaning up any spills or anything that would make the floor slippery, as well as clearing any debris that could cause a falling hazard.
It’s the flight crew’s responsibility to ensure that passengers are not injured from these types of situations, including injuries from food carts and other foreseeable hazards.
Another possible hazard we hear about is injuries from passenger behavior. There are instances when a passenger might become physically aggressive or have an altercation with either another passenger or with a member of the flight crew. The airline can’t control a passenger’s behavior, but liability will hinge on whether the airline took necessary precautions to foresee and prevent an injury.
Injuries to airline employees
An airline or airport employee who is injured while performing tasks related to their job could be eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits. Unlike railroad employees, who are eligible only for Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) benefits, airline employees are eligible for the same workers’ comp benefits as any other worker in any industry.
The likelihood of being injured as an airline or airport employee depends on the nature of your job. A flight attendant or baggage handler is more likely than a ticket agent, for example, to strain their back while lifting heavy items.
A workers’ compensation claim does not require you to prove negligence. One of the benefits of workers’ compensation is that it is a no-fault system, which means the plaintiff (the injured worker) does not need to prove that anyone was negligent in order to recover benefits. They only need to prove that the injury happened at work.
Types of aviation accident lawsuits
A personal injury lawsuit is usually based on suing a person (or company) who caused an injury by negligence. In a plane-related injury, this is most likely to fall into 1 of 2 categories:
- Failure to follow duty of care. The airline is responsible for ensuring passengers’ safety. An airline is a “common carrier,” which is an entity that transports people or goods for a fee. Because a commercial airline is a common carrier, it’s held to a higher safety standard than other types of defendants.Even a private charter plane company is responsible for keeping passengers safe. If any person or entity involved in the plane operation or travel is negligent, they can be held liable for an injury.
Aside from following all of the airline and FAA flight regulations and guidelines, airline staff is responsible for ensuring that there are no hazards that might cause injury, whether on the ground or in the air.
Negligence could be attributed to the:
- Plane owner
- Maintenance company
- Federal government (air traffic control is maintained by the federal government, not the airline)
- Product defect. Some plane crashes or aviation injuries are related to faulty mechanics or a defect in the plane or one of its parts. A products liability lawsuit is related to defective design, manufacturing, or a failure to warn that results in an injury.
What damages are available following a Kentucky plane crash?
Plane crash (or injury) survivors can recover 3 types of damages:
- Economic damages include the monetary losses caused by the crash (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage)
- Non-economic damages include the non-monetary losses caused by the crash (pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium)
- Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and are only available in cases where the defendant acted willfully or recklessly
If someone is killed in a plane crash, their surviving family members (the spouse and children or parents and heirs if there is no spouse or children) can recover the following compensation by filing a wrongful death lawsuit:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Medical bills incurred by the deceased before their death
- Property damage
- Loss of consortium damages
- Mental anguish suffered by the surviving family members
What is the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996?
In 1994, American Eagle Flight 4184 crashed in a soybean field in Roselawn, Indiana. 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.
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, such as:
- 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 and 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.
When to contact a Kentucky plane accident lawyer
If you were injured in an aviation accident, either as a passenger, employee, or bystander on the ground, you should consult a Kentucky plane accident lawyer to learn your options for filing a claim or lawsuit to cover the costs of your injuries.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.