Legal considerations when your plane falls from the sky
Ken Bickell and Steve James Fitch were flying a 1968 Piper PA-32 single-engine plane over Greenfield, South Carolina when the engine shuttered and then went quiet.
Pilot: “We have a problem.”
Tower: “You okay?”
The plane quickly dropped from the sky, struck a smokestack, and crashed behind the Donaldson Center Airport. Miraculously, both men survived.
Plane crashes are extremely rare, but they do happen. In this article, we’ll take a look at plane crashes in South Carolina, including the common causes, who might be liable, and what damages can be recovered.
What are the common causes of plane crashes?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates civil aviation accidents in the United States. 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 (non-passenger aircraft) crashes include:
- Inflight loss of control
- System component failure
- Bad weather conditions
- Mid-air collisions
- Low-altitude operations
What about in-flight injuries?
When most people think about aviation-related injuries, they picture planes dropping from the sky. But passengers can sustain injuries during otherwise uneventful flights as well.
Common causes of in-flight injuries include:
- Luggage falling out of overhead bins
- Rolling food carts
- Passenger violence
What legal options do plane crash survivors and victims’ families have?
There are a number of potential legal claims that could stem from a plane crash depending on the nature of the crash. Here are the 5 most common legal claims:
- Negligence. A negligence claim may be appropriate if the plane crash was due to the carelessness of the pilot, air traffic controller, flight attendant, passenger or some other individual.
- Wrongful death. A wrongful death claim is just like a negligence claim except that it’s filed by the family members of a loved one killed in a plane crash caused by someone else’s carelessness.
- Product liability claims. A product liability claim may be appropriate if an aircraft design or manufacturing defect caused the crash.
- Federal Tort Claims Act. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is responsible for controlling all air traffic in the United States. When an FAA employee’s carelessness causes a plane crash, plaintiffs must file a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA requires plaintiffs to follow certain rules and procedures when suing the federal government.
- Workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that provides financial benefits to employees who are injured on the job. If an employee of an airline (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.
At the same time, Air Force Major Aaron Johnson was on a solo mission in an F-16 to practice instrument-assisted approaches at Charleston Air Force Base.
At 11:00 a.m., an air traffic control radar system was alerted to the fact that the 2 planes were in close vicinity. Three seconds later, a controller alerted the F-16 pilot that the planes were 2 miles apart.
The pilot responded that he was looking for the aircraft. The next transmission he received from the controller was to “turn left if you don’t have that traffic in sight.” The F-16 started to turn. Seconds later, the F-16 collided with the Cessna, killing Joseph and Michael Johnson.
A subsequent investigation conducted by the NTSB found that the F-16 pilot should have been told to expedite the turn, as the collision likely could have been avoided if the F-16 had turned immediately.
The estates of Joseph and Michael Johnson filed a negligence lawsuit against the FAA alleging that the crash would have been averted had the air traffic controller provided appropriate navigational guidance.
A jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded the estates $6.8 million.
What are the most common plane crash injuries?
Plane crashes generally result in serious injuries or death.
According to research published in the journal of Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance, aviation-related injuries result in approximately 1,000 hospitalizations and more than 700 deaths every year in the United States.
The average hospital stay is more than 6 days and 2% of patients die while in the hospital. The most common injuries suffered by those admitted to the hospital are:
- Lower-limb fractures
- Head injuries
- Open wounds
- Upper-extremity fractures
- Internal injuries
Can you increase your chances of surviving a plane crash?
There’s nothing you can do to ensure you will survive a plane crash, but there are some steps you can take to improve your chances:
- Wear tight-fitting clothing and athletic shoes. Tight-fitting clothing is less likely to snag on jagged edges if you’re trying to exit the plane in an emergency. Similarly, appropriate footwear is less likely to slow you down.
- Choose a seat toward the back of the plane. Time magazine reviewed 35 years of data and found that seats in the back third of the plane had a 32% fatality rate, compared to 39% in the middle, and 38% in the front.
- Stay within 5 rows of an emergency exit. University of Greenwich professor Ed Galea analyzed the seating charts from more than 100 plane crashes and found that sitting within 5 rows of an emergency exit drastically improves your chances of survival.
- Pay attention to the safety presentation. Most of us spend the safety presentation talking to the person next to us or getting our media devices ready for the long flight, but preflight safety briefings contain important information (such as the location of the emergency exits and the proper “brace” position).
What damages are available following a plane crash in South Carolina?
In South Carolina, plane crash 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. 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 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.
Ready to meet with an attorney to discuss your legal options following a plane crash? Use our free online directory to locate an experienced personal injury attorney in your area.
What’s more, plane crashes often involve several parties and several states (or even countries). For these reasons, it’s important to hire an attorney who has experience litigating plane crashes.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.