Plane crashes can result in fatalities and serious injuries. Here’s what you can do.
Let’s travel back in time to 1996.
If you lived in Nashville at the time, it’s probably deeply etched in your memory. That’s when a Navy fighter jet crashed in a residential neighborhood near the airport. Two crew members died, along with 3 people in a house that was hit by the plane. Two other homes burned.
The last time there was a commercial airline crash with fatalities was Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, New York in 2009. The crash killed 49 people on board and 1 on the ground.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates that U.S. airlines carried 925.5 million passengers in 2019.
That’s a lot of passengers who arrived safely at their destinations. By contrast, 38,000 people died in car crashes that year alone and 4.4 million people were injured seriously enough to require medical treatment.
As one airline official pointed out, the most dangerous part of your trip is likely the drive to the airport, not the flight.
But in the unfortunate event that you’re involved in a plane crash — either as a passenger, a person on the ground, or the survivor of a person killed in a crash — you might need to explore legal options for financial recovery.
- Single engine
- Experimental (amateur-built)
- Light sport aircraft
Causes of aviation accidents
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the top causes of fatal 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 crash 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.
But, 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, for instance, could cause complete electrical failure or other problems.
Small plane pilots need to be tuned in to weather conditions, both actual and anticipated, and modify their flight course accordingly.
3. Aircraft malfunction or mechanical failure
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, equipment malfunction can lead to tragedy. Even the most experienced pilot can only do so much if the plane’s equipment fails.
Types of injuries from a Tennessee plane crash
Plane crashes are often fatal but occasionally result in minor injuries. The most common injuries related to plane crashes include:
- Injuries to the pilot, passengers, and crew. These include impact injuries like broken bones, head injuries, or trauma injuries like heart attacks or strokes.
- Bystander injuries. If a plane crashes in a populated area, it’s possible for people on the ground to be injured or killed. There’s also a risk of injury to airport employees or passengers on other planes on the runway.
- Fires. Some injuries are related to ignited jet fuel and result in burns and smoke inhalation.
- Property damage. Even if your home or business is some distance away from a crash, scattered debris can cause damage to other properties on the ground.
- Emotional anguish. A plane crash can be traumatizing for survivors, whether you were involved in the crash or you lost a loved one. Anxiety, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common after a significant accident.
- Fatalities. Many crashes result in a significant number of deaths of passengers, crew, and the pilot. These could be subject to a wrongful death lawsuit.
Theories of liability for a Tennessee plane crash
There are 2 primary theories of liability to recover damages from a plane accident.
- Strict liability
Negligence is the general principle behind most personal injury claims. If you were injured because another person or entity breached its duty of care to avoid harm, and if that injury cost you money, then you might be able to file a lawsuit based on negligence.
A commercial airline has a heightened duty of care because it’s considered a “common carrier.” A common carrier is a tour bus, passenger train, commercial plane, bus, taxi, or cruise ship. Any mode of transportation that’s offered as a service to the public is included under this designation. That means the operator is responsible for keeping you safe. If you’re injured, the operator can be held liable.
If you were in an accident in a private plane, the pilot or owner of the plane might be liable.
Regardless, determining the correct party’s liability will likely be the touchstone of your case.
Every plane is required to have a flight recorder (commonly called the “black box”) and a cockpit voice recorder. The flight recorder preserves the history of the flight, which can help investigators trace where something went wrong. The cockpit voice recorder keeps a log of any conversation or other sounds made by the pilot or other things in the cockpit, which can also be important evidence after a crash.
Usually, even if the crash was caused by an external force like poor weather conditions, there’s some negligence involved. It might even be that the pilot or airline chose to fly when the weather should’ve prevented it — a bad judgment call like that can be included as negligence. Getting on the plane isn’t considered negligent because it’s not your job to anticipate the weather or know how the plane would handle certain conditions.
The pilot and the air traffic controllers are expected to anticipate conditions at takeoff, throughout the flight path, and on landing. Certainly, situations arise that are unforeseeable, but part of their role is to be able to reroute the flight or take other measures to make sure everyone lands safely... even if it’s a different destination or time than planned.
The standard of strict liability is also negligence, but it refers to a defect in the plane, itself (or the control tower, tarmac, or anything else involved in the operation of the aircraft).
A plane is made of hundreds of thousands of parts. Unlike a car, which largely relies on parts made by a single manufacturer, a plane consists of parts that come from a variety of manufacturers. That’s why the flight recording mechanisms are so important — they provide valuable information about what went wrong.
In general, a defective product case could be filed for:
- Design defect. A properly made product was dangerous in the way it was designed, and a product didn’t perform as expected when used in the manner in which it was intended.
- Marketing defect. This would involve a part or process that doesn’t have the correct warnings (failure to warn) or instructions.
- Manufacturing defect. The product was safe as designed, but it was manufactured improperly and the result didn’t reflect the design.
Tennessee wrongful death statute
Often, a plane crash doesn’t leave survivors, and the legal claims that follow are related to the loss of a family member.
Tennessee Code 28-3-104(a)(1) specifies that a surviving family member may file a claim within 1 year of the date of the accident.
A wrongful death claim is based on negligence and can be filed by the deceased person’s:
- Child (or next of kin if there’s no spouse)
- Personal representative
The aftermath of a plane crash
If you were involved in a plane crash, or if you lost a loved one, you’re probably dealing with a range of concerns — from medical needs to emotional impacts and financial losses.
Take comfort in knowing that you can likely recover damages from a plane crash, including:
- Medical treatment costs, including surgeries, hospital stays, adaptive devices, prescription medications, doctor visits, and any other related expenses.
- Pain and suffering, which includes emotional distress and anguish, PTSD, and other effects of the trauma. You can also make a claim for pain and suffering of the deceased person in a wrongful death lawsuit.
- Property loss, if your home or property was damaged as a result of a nearby plane crash.
- Lost wages or future earning capacity, if your injuries limit your ability to work or you lost time as a result of the crash.
- Loss of consortium, which is the loss of love and companionship of a family member who was lost in a crash.
- Punitive damages, which Tennessee courts can award to punish and deter misconduct that’s intentional, malicious, or fraudulent. This might be applicable if, for example, the pilot was intoxicated or especially reckless.
It’s crucial that you contact a lawyer if you’ve been involved in an aviation accident. There could be multiple potential defendants, highly technical evidence, and very complicated legal arguments in a case of this nature.