What you need to know about receiving compensation after a plane crash
Plane crashes are more common in Montana than you might think. While crashes involving commercial passenger planes are extremely rare, crashes involving crop dusters and other small aircraft are much more common.
So what happens when a plane (however large or small) goes down in Big Sky Country?
When a plane crashes, serious injuries and fatalities are common. A personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit is generally the best way to recover the inevitable losses associated with a plane crash.
This article discusses the most common causes of airplane accidents, provides an overview of the different laws that might apply, and explains what options injured parties and their families have in the event of a tragic plane crash.
What are the most common causes of aircraft accidents?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is tasked with investigating all civil aviation accidents in the United States. In rare cases, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may also become involved.
Piecing together the facts after a plane crash can be a challenge. Most investigations don’t reach any conclusions until 12-18 months after the start of the investigation and, in some cases, like the 2016 Montana plane crash that claimed 3 lives, the cause of the crash is never determined.
Causes of aircraft accidents tend to differ between commercial aircraft and general aviation (amateur-built aircraft, agricultural planes, turboprops, etc). The most common causes of commercial aircraft accidents include:
- Pilot error. A seven year study found that over half of all airplane crashes are due to human errors. These include misreading equipment or weather conditions, overreacting to cockpit warnings, failure to add a duel system icing inhibitor to the fuel, and engaging in improper maneuvers.
- Poor maintenance. Maintenance-related issues can lead to engine and other critical instrument failures.
- Sabotage. Sabotage refers to situations where hijackers take control of a plane or the pilot intentionally crashes a plane.
- Air traffic control error. Sometimes the error lies with the employees on the control tower or the landing strip.
According to the FAA, common causes of general aviation accidents include:
- Loss of control inflight
- System component failure
- Fuel related issues
- Poor weather conditions
- Mid-air collisions
- Low-altitude operations
Who’s liable after a plane crash?
Liability following a plane crash depends on the circumstances surrounding the crash. Common parties that may be found liable include:
- Pilot. The pilot may be found liable if it’s found they acted carelessly or negligently, and their carelessness caused the accident.
- Airplane owner. The owner of the airplane may be liable under the theory of respondeat superior. Under this theory, an employer (such as a commercial airliner) is liable for the negligence of their employees so long as the negligent act occurred in the course of the employee’s employment.
- Manufacturer. When a product is found to be defective, the manufacturer can be held liable for any injuries that the defect caused.
- Maintenance company. A private maintenance company may be held liable if the company failed to properly maintain the airplane.
- Federal government. Air traffic controllers direct and guide pilots through international airspace. These individuals are employed by the federal government and their failure to properly perform their duties could result in the government being held liable.
What damages can be recovered after a plane crash?
In Montana, there are 3 types of damages available to a person injured by a plane crash:
- Economic damages (medical expenses, lost wages, etc.)
- Non-economic damages (pain and suffering, loss of consortium, etc.)
- Punitive damages
Punitive damages are only available in cases involving fraud or actual malice. In a plane crash, fraud is generally not a factor. However, the defendant may have acted with actual malice.
So what is actual malice?
In Montana, a defendant acts with actual malice if the defendant:
- Has knowledge of facts that create a high probability of injury to the plaintiff, and
- Intentionally proceeds to act despite the high probability of injury.
For example, if an employee tasked with maintenance knows that a component is likely to cause a plane to crash, but fails to repair the component, that maintenance employee might be found to have acted with malice. Similarly, if a pilot intentionally crashes a plane, the pilot likely acted with malice.
Every airline that operates around the world must have a certain level of mandatory insurance coverage. These insurance companies will pay the damages awarded to victims in the case of an airplane accident. When it comes to an international airplane accident, the compensation will also be subject to the terms of the Montreal Convention.
What legal claims are appropriate?
Often, there are multiple factors that cause an accident. In those cases, it may be appropriate to raise more than one legal claim and to have more than one defendant. Common legal claims include:
- Negligence. Negligence claims are generally appropriate when some human error (such as a pilot error) caused the crash. The plaintiff would have to prove that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would have.
- Product liability. Product liability claims are appropriate when there are defects in the equipment that caused or contributed to the accident.
- Federal Tort Claims Act. This act allows a private citizen to sue the federal government and its employees for torts committed in the scope of federal employment. For example, if an air traffic controller employed by the FAA causes a plane to crash, the plaintiff can sue under the federal tort claims act.
- Respondeat superior. The employer is responsible for the employee’s actions during the scope of his or her employment.
- Wrongful death lawsuits. Surviving relatives can receive compensation to help cover a victims lost wages, loss of support, funeral costs, and the emotional injuries by filing a wrongful death claim.
What rights do family members have immediately after an accident?
After a domestic or foreign commercial plane crash, the federal government and the airline is required to provide assistance to the families of victims of the crash under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. This assistance includes notifying families, helping families travel to the accident location, and supplying family members with investigation information during the investigative process.
How can you find a plane crash attorney?
Like airplanes themselves, aviation law is incredibly complex. Not only are there a number of local laws, federal laws, and international treaties that may be implicated, but there are often a large number of victims from different states and the lawsuits could become multi-district lawsuits. For these reasons, the field of aviation litigation requires an attorney with experience in the field.
Use our free online attorney directory to locate a personal injury attorney in Montana who has experience in aviation litigation.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.