We typically think of aviation accidents as dramatic plane crashes like we see in movies or on TV. However, like any kind of accident, aviation injuries can be anything from a minor bump to a fatal crash.
If you're involved in a plane accident and survive, you should be able to claim compensation (damages) for the costs related to your medical treatment and other expenses resulting from the injury. If your loved one died in a fatal crash, you may be able to recover compensation for wrongful death.
First though, let's take a look at some of the facts around Maryland plane crashes—starting with one of the most well-known Maryland aviation accidents.
Investigators found that the lightning strike ignited vapors in the plane's fuel tank and caused an explosion. As a result of the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) developed studies on lightning protection for fuel systems. This led to significant safety improvements, along with new guidelines and regulations.
Since the Pan Am crash, there have been 104 commercial plane accidents in the U.S. that resulted in 10 or more fatalities. The 1963 crash is the only commercial aircraft accident on record in Maryland.
Types of aircraft
There are 3 types of aircraft: commercial, private, and military.
Commercial aviation includes both passenger airlines and cargo flights. Civil aviation is all non-military flying, including both private and commercial. It's for scheduled air transport (passenger and cargo flights) and general aviation (GA), which includes all other non-military flights.
Private aviation includes pilots who are flying for recreation, business, or other purposes without being paid for their flights. A charter plane (for example, hired to fly a sports team or other group of people flying together to a single destination) is considered part of commercial aviation.
Maryland plane crashes
There have been a few small plane crashes in Maryland in recent years. These include:
March 4, 2021: A small private aircraft crashed in a field near the Maryland-Virginia-West Virginia border, leaving 1 person dead. (source)
February 17, 2021: A small Cessna hit a treeline in Charles County along Bryans Road near Maryland Airport after experiencing engine trouble. There were no reports of injuries. The pilot and a passenger refused medical treatment at the scene. (source)
December 29, 2019: A New York optometrist was piloting a small Grumman Cheetah plane when it crashed into a home on Chestnut Avenue in New Carrollton. The plane exploded on impact. The pilot, who was the only person on the plane, was killed. There was no one in the home at the time, and the pilot was the only casualty of the crash. Initial reports suggested that the pilot became disoriented because of poor weather conditions and the plane entered a "graveyard spiral" from about 1,800 feet altitude. (source)
December 8, 2014: An Embraer EMB-500 Phenom 100 operated by Sage Aviation crashed on landing near Gaithersburg, resulting in 6 fatalities. The fatalities included 1 crew member, 2 passengers, and 3 people inside a house on the ground. The crash was caused because the pilot did not properly turn on the airplane's wing and horizontal stabilizer de-ice system, which led to accumulation of ice on the wings. This, combined with inappropriate landing speeds for the weather and the plane's weight, resulted in an aerodynamic stall. (source)
The plaintiff alleged that the plane had a design defect because it didn't have an automated system to activate de-icing. The plaintiff also asserted that the pilot, who died in the crash, did not de-ice the plane and improperly advanced toward the runway.
Mr. Gemmel reached an undisclosed settlement with the defendants.
Types of aviation accidents
1. Plane crashes
As we've discussed, most aviation accidents are plane crashes. These can involve large commercial jets (which is uncommon) or small private planes.
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 also can suffer injuries from slip and fall accidents on a flight. This could be walking to the bathroom, or while boarding or deplaning. The airline staff is responsible for making sure to clean up any spills or anything that would make the floor slippery, or any debris that could cause a falling hazard.
Passengers can also be struck by a rolling food cart on a flight, or injured by a food cart rolls over their foot. Like walkways, it's the responsibility of the airline staff to ensure that these carts are handled and secured properly to avoid injuries.
If fumes or gases enter the plane's cabin, you could become ill from inhaling those substances.
Injuries from passenger altercations
We're hearing more and more in the news about passengers or airline employees being injured after a physical confrontation with another person. However, whether or not the airline is responsible for injuries from a passenger's behavior depends on whether the airline took all necessary steps to foresee and prevent the injury.
3. Airline employee injuries
Airlines and airports employ millions of people across the country. There are a range of positions, from baggage handling to flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, and others who work both on the ground and in the air.
The likelihood of being injured at work depends on the nature of your job. Flight attendants and baggage handlers are likely to become injured from lifting heavy items and could suffer neck, back, muscle, and spinal injuries.
A baggage handler or ground service worker is likely to be on the runway, where there are always vehicles moving. They could be involved in an accident with a vehicle and sustain injuries.
The Montreal Convention
The Montreal Convention is an international treaty adopted in 1999. The treaty makes an air carrier strictly liable for damages up to about $175,000 (U.S. dollars).
If you are injured during an international flight, you need only to prove that you were injured and that the injury cost you money — you do not need to prove negligence in order to recover damages.
If your injury costs more than $175,000, you would need to prove that the airline or a third party was negligent in order to recover costs.
The Montreal Convention doesn't cover non-economic damages like emotional distress.
Types of lawsuits for an aviation accident injury
Most personal injury lawsuits, including plane injury claims, are based on negligence. In an aviation accident, the cause of action is most likely to be one of the following:
- 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 the benefit of the public. Because a commercial airline is a common carrier, it's held to a higher safety standard than other types of defendants.
However, even a private charter plane company is responsible for keeping passengers safe. If any person or entity involved in 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 would create the possibility of injury, whether on the ground or in the air.
Negligence could be attributed to the:
- Plane owner
- Maintenance company
- Federal government
- Product defect. Some air crashes 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.
Common causes of aviation accidents
According to the FAA, the top causes of fatal general aviation (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:
1. Pilot error
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.
2. Bad weather
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.
Small plane pilots need to be tuned in to weather conditions at all times, both actual and anticipated, and modify their flight course accordingly.
3. Aircraft malfunction
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.
Partly because 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.
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 damages. This is 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 damages. 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) if the behavior was especially egregious, intentional, or malicious; however, you could be awarded punitive damages against a private person or small company.
If you've been injured in an aviation accident, or if you've lost a family member to a plane crash, you could be eligible to recover costs associated with the injury. These are complex cases because they often have multiple defendants, and they require experts to testify about what happened and how.