Learn about plane crash lawsuits and programs designed to help families of plane crash victims
Captain Malburn “Buddy” McBroom, a World War II Navy veteran, was piloting a Douglas DC-8 carrying 181 passengers on December 28, 1973.
As Buddy approached the Portland International Airport, he lowered the landing gear and felt an abnormal vibration. The indicator light didn’t show that the gear was lowered successfully and Buddy wasn’t sure if it was locked in place.
Buddy requested a holding pattern to diagnose the problem.
For the next hour, Buddy, his co-pilot, and the flight engineer circled the Portland International Airport trying to figure out if there was a problem with the landing gear. During this time, nobody bothered to check the plane’s fuel gauge, which showed the fuel was burning at an alarming rate.
When the crew finally realized they were out of fuel, the Douglas DC-8 lost 2 engines to flameout. Buddy instructed his co-pilot to declare a mayday.
“Portland tower, United 173, mayday. We’re—the engines are flaming out. We’re going down. We’re not going to be able to make it to the airport.”
Soon after mayday was declared, the plane crashed into a residential Portland neighborhood near East Burnside and 157th Avenue.
In all, 2 crew members and 8 passengers were killed in the crash. Many more suffered serious injuries.
Plane crashes are extremely rare. But, as the survivors of the United Airlines Flight 173 crash will tell you, they do happen. And when they do, they are often catastrophic.
Why do airplanes crash?
Your chances of being killed in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. However, you’re more likely to die in a general aviation crash than a commercial aviation crash:
- General aviation refers to all non-scheduled flights. This category includes private aircraft, such as light-sport aircraft, turboprops, and rotorcrafts.
- Commercial aviation refers to scheduled flights that involve the transportation of passengers or cargo. The most common commercial planes are the Boeing 747, 777, and 737.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates the vast majority of plane crashes in the U.S., found that the most common causes of general aviation accidents include:
- In-flight loss of control
- System component failure
- Poor weather conditions
- Mid-air collisions
- Low-altitude operations
The most common causes of commercial aviation accidents include:
- Pilot error
- Poor maintenance
- Air traffic control error
Potential legal claims following a plane crash
When a plane crashes, the occupants of the plane may be able to recover damages. There are 5 types of legal claims commonly filed following a plane crash:
- Negligence lawsuit
- Wrongful death lawsuit
- Product liability lawsuit
- Federal tort claim
- Workers’ compensation claim
Let’s take a closer look at each legal claim.
1. Negligence lawsuit
If your plane crash is caused by a human error, such as a pilot neglecting to monitor the fuel gauge, you may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence.
To prove negligence in Oregon, you must establish the following elements:
- Duty. You must prove that the defendant owed you a duty of care.
- Breach. You must prove that the defendant breached their duty of care.
- Causation. You must prove that your injury wouldn’t have occurred but for the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. You must prove that you actually suffered some harm.
The duty of care owed is typically to act as a “reasonable person” would under the circumstances. However, commercial planes are considered “common carriers” and have a duty to exercise the “highest degree of care,” which is the degree of care that a very careful person would use under the circumstances.
2. Wrongful death lawsuit
When someone is killed in a plane crash, certain members of their family (spouse, children, parents, stepchildren, and stepparents) may be able to recover damages by filing 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 had they survived).
If your wrongful death lawsuit is successful, you’ll receive compensation for the loss of your loved one.
3. Product liability lawsuit
One of the most common causes of plane crashes is system component failure. If the system component failure was the result of a defective component (such as a poorly designed lithium-ion battery), an injured passenger may be able to file a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the defective component.
Product liability cases are based on negligence or strict liability.
Negligence vs. strict liability in product liability lawsuits
In a product liability case based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care (manufacturers owe a duty of care to all potential users),
- The defendant breached the duty of care, and
- The defendant's breach caused the plaintiff's injuries.
In a product liability case based on strict liability, the plaintiff must prove that:
- The product was sold in an "unreasonably dangerous" condition,
- The unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the product left the defendant's control, and
- The dangerous condition caused the plaintiff's injuries.
4. Federal tort claim
The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is responsible for directing and guiding pilots through international airspace. If an FAA employee fails to perform their duties properly, the federal government may be liable for any resulting injuries or deaths.
When suing the federal government, plaintiffs must do so under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA requires plaintiffs to follow special rules and procedures, so it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney in your area who specializes in federal cases.
5. Workers’ compensation claim
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that provides financial benefits to employees who are injured on the job.
If an airline employee (such as a pilot or flight attendant) is injured in a plane crash, they may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim. Additionally, the family members of an employee killed in a plane crash may be able to receive workers’ compensation death benefits.
Turbulence and in-flight injuries
The term “turbulence” simply refers to some sort of change in the air around your plane.
Things that cause turbulence include:
- Atmospheric pressure
- Jet streams
- Cold or warm weather fronts
Pilots are often able to warn passengers when there’s going to be turbulence and even maneuver the plane to avoid really bad turbulence. However, sometimes turbulence is unexpected or unavoidable, or both.
In most cases, a passenger experiencing turbulence will feel nothing more than a small vibration. In extreme cases, however, turbulence can be enough to throw passengers around the cabin.
“More than 65% of severe injuries logged by U.S. accident investigators from 2017 through 2020 on airliners resulted from planes encountering bumpy skies, triggered by atmospheric conditions that could be worsening due to climate change.” - Bloomberg
Passengers who are injured during turbulence typically aren’t wearing a seatbelt. However, even belted passengers can be injured by falling luggage.
An injured passenger may be able to file a lawsuit against an airline for negligence if the turbulence could have been avoided or the impact limited. For example, if a pilot is aware that the plane will soon be experiencing significant turbulence but fails to instruct passengers to be seated and wear their seatbelts, the pilot may be liable if a passenger is injured.
Similarly, a passenger may be able to file a lawsuit against an airline if they were struck by luggage that was improperly secured by a flight attendant.
Types of damages available after a plane crash
Oregon allows plane crash survivors to recover the following damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
Loved ones who file wrongful death lawsuits following a plane crash may recover the following damages:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Lost wages and benefits the deceased person would reasonably have been expected to earn had they survived
- Loss of society, companionship, and services the deceased provided the family
What is the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996?
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 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) must carry out a number of duties following a plane crash. For example, the NTSB must:
- 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, as well as 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.
Statute of limitations in Oregon
The statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit before your claim is permanently barred.
In Oregon, most plane crash lawsuits and in-flight injury lawsuits must be filed within 2 years of the plaintiff being injured. If the plaintiff is under the age of 18 when they’re injured, the 2-year clock won’t start ticking until they turn 18.
If your loved one was killed in an aviation accident and you wish to file a wrongful death claim, you have 3 years in which to file an action. The clock starts ticking from the moment the accident or crash occurs.
Plane crash lawsuits are complex and should be handled by an experienced personal injury attorney. You can find an Oregon personal injury attorney near you using our free online directory. Most initial consultations are free.