What those seeking to recover damages following an aviation accident should know
Texas has a habit of doing everything BIGGER than the rest of the country. In this case, we’re not talking about steaks, cowboy hats, or oil geysers—we’re talking about planes.
Granted, the planes themselves aren’t bigger, but the Lone Star State has one of the largest aviation systems in the nation. Southwest Airlines and Bell Helicopter are headquartered here. Raytheon relocated part of its business here. SpaceX tests its rockets here. Aeronautics is one of the biggest industries in Texas, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center—a significant hub of NASA—is located in Houston.
With a network of approximately 300 public airports, accidents are bound to happen.
What causes aviation accidents?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was established to investigate all civil aviation accidents in the United States. In rare cases, the FBI or the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) will also play a role in determining the cause of the accident.
Unfortunately, figuring out what caused a plane, helicopter, or other aircraft to crash is often challenging and it can take months or even years to piece together the evidence.
The most common causes of aircraft accidents include:
- Defective components. If an aircraft part is defective and causes the aircraft to crash, a product liability suit against the manufacturer of the part may be appropriate.
- Piloting error. Pilot error includes everything from misreading equipment to engaging in improper maneuvers.
- Air traffic control error. Sometimes the error is on the ground and the fault lies with the people on the control tower or landing strip.
- FAA regulation violation. FAA regulations violations include using the wrong runway and holding inadequate fuel reserves, among other things.
- Improper maintenance. Was the plane in shape to fly? Was everything checked prior to taking off? Maintenance-related issues are usually the result of human factors such as inadequate skill or carelessness.
Who can be held liable in a plane crash?
Determining which party is liable for an aviation accident often requires extensive investigation. Potential liable parties include:
- Pilot. The pilot may be liable if they acted negligently or intentionally caused harm.
- Aircraft 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 (whether it be the maintenance crew or the pilot) so long as the negligent act occurred in the course of the employee’s job or shift.
- Manufacturer. When a product is found to be defective, the manufacturer can be held liable for any injuries that the defect caused.
- Maintenance and repair facilities. Individuals who maintain and repair airplanes must follow strict instructions. Failure to do so may result in liability.
- 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 legal claims are appropriate?
What legal claim is raised depends on the nature of the aviation accident. While the legal claims list below aren’t the only ones that may be raised, these are the most common:
- Negligence. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty of care, and the plaintiff was injured as a result of that breach.
- Strict liability. In certain product liability cases, a manufacturer may be found strictly liable for putting a dangerous product into the market.
- The Federal Tort Claims Act. This act allows private citizens to sue the federal government and its employees for torts committed in the scope of federal employment.
- Respondeat superior. The employer may, in certain cases, be responsible for an employee’s actions.
- Texas Tort Claims Act. This is Texas’ version of the Federal Tort Claims Act that allows private citizens to sue the state government and its employees for torts committed in the scope of government employment. The state is liable if the employee fulfilled 2 conditions: the employee must have been “acting within the scope of [their] employment” and it must be determined that the employee would have been found liable as a private individual.
How does the General Aviation Revitalization Act apply?
Airlines and manufacturers can respond to lawsuits with typical personal injury or product liability defenses. However, manufacturers of smaller aircraft have an additional defense at their disposal.
The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 bars lawsuits against manufacturers of small, private airplanes if the accident involved an aircraft or part that has been in use for 18 years or more. The term “small aircraft” means fewer than 20 seats.
What damages can be recovered following an aviation accident?
The victim of an aviation accident can be compensated for economic damages (medical expenses and lost wages) caused by the accident, as well as non-economic damages (pain and suffering).
In addition, an injured person might be able to recover punitive damages if the liable party’s actions were intentional or particularly outrageous. However, punitive damages may be limited or prohibited altogether depending on the nature of the plane crash. For example, when an international flight crashes, punitive damages are prohibited under the Montreal Convention.
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.
What rights do family members have after a plane crash?
Attorneys used to flock to airplane crash sites in an effort to get in contact with members of the victim’s family. Limits on attorney solicitation have been enforced by creating the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. This effectively eliminated the surge of business cards, phone calls, and lawyers actually showing up to funerals in the early ‘90s.
The Act also did a number of other helpful things for the families of aviation accident victims. It required the federal government to support the families by placing duties on the airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board to provide the following:
- Victim identification and forensic services
- Translation services
- Daily briefings
- Safe grieving places that would be uninterrupted by the press or attorneys
- Memorial services
- Communications with foreign governments
- Mental health and counseling services
- Meetings with the families of victims
The airline is also required to establish a toll-free telephone line for the families, providing a list of all passengers on the flight in question, informing families of the death of family members, assisting families with travel to/from the crash scene and offering room and board at the location of the accident.
If you or a loved one has been involved in an aviation accident, consider reaching out to an experienced Texas attorney.
What does an injury lawyer do?
A personal injury lawyer helps individuals who have sustained injuries in accidents to recover financial compensation. These funds are often needed to pay for medical treatment, make up for lost wages and provide compensation for injuries suffered. Sometimes a case that seems simple at first may become more complicated. In these cases, consider hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. Read more
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