When things go wrong in the sky, can you sue the airline? What duty do airlines have to passengers after a crash?
Written by: Enjuris Editors
Planes of all sizes are safer than cars, trucks or bikes, but things can still go wrong. Pilot error, mechanical problems, fuel intake issues – there are a host of ways that accidents can happen. In 2014 there were 1,290 airline accidents and 265 involved fatalities.
You are more likely to die from choking on a breadstick than you are to crash in a plane.
Think about it: A huge metal tube is defying the laws of God and man, lurching into the sky and being held aloft for hours because engineers built it to withstand enormous pressure, severe weather and the weight of hundreds of pounds of equipment. And yet there it goes, soaring through the air to its destination.
(By the way, they're not actually called "plane crashes" by the Federal Aviation Administration – they're called "aviation accidents." The more you know!)
You should fear eating more than flying: 265 airplane accident fatalities vs. 4600 deaths from choking
How likely are you to crash in a plane? Well, in according to the National Transportation Safety Board, in 2014 there were 1,290 airline accidents – this included commercial airlines to tiny private planes, mind you – and 265 involved fatalities. The number of people who died from choking that year: 4,600.
Last year, while more than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights, there were 81 aviation accidents, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata). That was below the five-year average of 86 accidents per year. (Iata says that for western-built jet aircraft, there were 0.41 "hull loss" accidents per million flights in 2013, equivalent to one such accident per 2.4m flights; a "hull loss" is an accident in which the aircraft is destroyed or substantially damaged and not subsequently repaired).
Only 20% of the 81 accidents recorded by Iata last year caused fatalities; there were 210 fatalities from commercial aviation accidents in 2013, a reduction from the 414 people who lost their lives in 2012 – despite there being a record low of 75 accidents that year.
There were 490 deaths in 2011 and a total of 92 accidents. There was a much higher figure of 786 fatalities in 2010, and 94 accidents. In 2009, there were 685 fatalities and 90 accidents.
This year's high-profile disasters have put the number of fatalities for 2014 at above 700 – indicating that this is a particularly bad year for air crashes.
Despite the relative safety of this type of travel, accidents do still happen. And when they do it's big.
What can cause an aviation accident?
Figuring out exactly what caused a plane or helicopter to crash is very, very difficult to do and can take a long time. Years, in fact.
Federal Aviation Administration investigators might have to coordinate with foreign officials to extract the "black box," which is a recording unit that has a crash-survivable solid-state memory unit. (They used to have magnetic tape but have since been upgraded with new technology.)
These can survive in drastic environments for quite a long time, preserving the imperative moments right before a crash so that investigators can learn what happened in the cockpit and prevent it from happening again.
Airplane crashes can happen for any number of reasons:
Piloting error: Was the pilot sick? Unconscious? Overtaken by a hijacker? Negligent in some other way?
Defective equipment or technical error: Perhaps the navigational equipment was not working properly, in which case a products liability suit could be initiated against the manufacturer.
Fueling or intake problem: If there wasn't enough fuel to get the plane where it needed to go, this would obviously be a major issue of negligence.
Faulty maintenance or structural issue: Was the plane in shape to fly? Was everything checked prior to taking off?
Air traffic control error: Sometimes the error is on the ground and fault lies with the people on the landing strip or in the control tower.
FAA regulation violation: This could include an altitude deviation, airspace violation, inadequate fuel reserves or using the wrong runway, for instance. Nobody wants two planes on the same runway.
Other negligence: This could include flight crew negligence (failing to do safety checks, for instance, or literally dragging a passenger off a plane to make room for staff, as infamously happened with United Airlines) or corporate negligence.
Who can be held liable for a plane crash?
Manufacturer: If a product is defective, the manufacturer can be held liable for any injuries that the defect caused. This theory is known as "strict liability".
Common carrier: Commercial airlines are kept to very high standards because they present themselves to the public as "common carriers." They are willing to carry any passenger who buys a ticket. The FAA is in charge of rules and regulations regarding common carriers, which are far more stringent than those around private carriers (IE, personal planes).
Owner/operator: If the owner of an aircraft is proven to have been reckless while operating an aircraft, then he or she will be held liable for damages to injured parties. The pilot can also be held responsible under the theory of vicarious liability or respondeat superior, which is when the employer is responsible for the actions of the employee when he or she is on the clock.
What specific legal claims exist?
While these are not the only legal claims that could be raised in an aviation accident, these are the most obvious:
Negligence: the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff (also known as the victim); the defendant breached that duty of care; the plaintiff was injured; and the defendant's breach caused damages.
Strict liability: In products liability cases, this is when a defendant puts a product into the stream of commerce and holds responsibility for whatever damages that product causes.
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.
Do the airlines have any defenses?
The airline can respond with typical personal injury or products liability defenses.
However, operators of smaller aircrafts (meaning those for private use) can try an additional defense. The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 bars lawsuits against the manufacturers of small private airplanes if the incident involved an aircraft or part that has been in use for 18 years or more.
When we say "small" aircraft, that means fewer than 20 seats, so this is a very narrow defense.
What about the families of victims of airplane crashes?
There used to be a convergence of attorneys toward the scene of airplane crashes, which was nothing short of tacky and hideous.
This meant that whenever a plane crashed, you could bet that an attorney would be on the horn to the victim's family, offering his services. Limits on attorney solicitation have been enforced by creating the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. This quashed 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 great things for the families of aviation incident 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;
Communications with foreign governments;
Safe grieving places that would be uninterrupted by the press or attorneys;
Mental health and counseling services; and
Meetings with the families of victims.
The airline was also responsible for establishing 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, and assisting the families with travel to/room & board at the location of the accident.
Finding an attorney who is well versed in aviation law is difficult because it is quite the niche in personal injury law. If you are in need of one, consider speaking with someone in the Enjuris law firm directory – they will be able to point you in the right direction.