Find out how to recover compensation after a plane crash or in-flight injury in the Evergreen State
There are roughly 220,000 civil aircraft registered in the United States, according to the Washington Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Of those, more than 90% are small, non-passenger planes.
Although commercial plane crashes are extremely rare, non-passenger plane crashes are more common than you might think.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the legal options aviation accident and plane crash victims (and their families) have in Washington.
Common causes of plane crashes
To understand why plane crashes and injuries happen, it’s helpful to understand that flight operations are categorized broadly as commercial or general aviation:
- Commercial aviation refers to scheduled flights that involve the transportation of passengers or cargo. When you purchase a plane ticket from a commercial airline or you purchase a product online and select “UPS Next Day Air Shipping,” the flight operation is considered commercial. The most common commercial planes are the Boeing 747, 777, and 737.
- General aviation refers to all non-scheduled flights. This category includes private aircraft, such as light-sport aircraft, turboprops, and rotorcraft.
General aviation accidents are much more common than commercial aviation accidents, although commercial accidents are more likely to make the news.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates most commercial and general aviation crashes.
According to the NTSB, the most common causes of commercial aviation accidents include:
- Pilot error
- Poor maintenance
- Air traffic control error
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
You are, however, more likely to die in a general aviation accident than a commercial aviation accident. In 2018, total aviation fatalities rose from 347 to 393. However, only 1 of those fatalities occurred on a commercial flight and it was the first commercial airline passenger death in the United States in 9 years.
Potential legal claims following a plane crash or in-flight injury
When a plane crash or aviation accident occurs, the injured passenger or pilot may be able to recover damages (compensation) under Washington’s personal injury laws. There are 4 common types of legal claims in aviation accident lawsuits:
- Product liability
- Federal tort
- Workers’ comp
Let’s take a quick look at each of these categories.
If a plane crash or accident is caused by pilot error or some other human error, an injured passenger may be able to file a lawsuit based on negligence. Put simply, a negligence claim alleges that someone else’s carelessness caused your injury.
More specifically, a plaintiff in a Washington aviation accident lawsuit based on negligence must establish the following elements:
- Duty. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care.
- Breach. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care.
- Causation. The plaintiff must prove that their injury wouldn’t have occurred but for the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. The plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered some harm.
In most cases, the duty of care owed is the duty to act as a “reasonable person.” However, commercial planes are considered “common carriers” and common carriers have a heightened duty to exercise the highest degree of care, which is the degree of care that a very careful person would use under the same circumstances.
2. Product liability
A product liability lawsuit alleges that a defective product caused the plane crash or in-flight injury. A product liability lawsuit may be based on any of the following defects:
- Design defect. A product that is inherently dangerous even when manufactured and used properly is defectively designed.
- Manufacturing defect. A product that would have been safe but for some error that occurred during the manufacturing process has a manufacturing defect.
- Marketing defect. A product that doesn’t have proper warnings or instructions is an example of a marketing defect.
The lawsuit alleged that the cylinder heads of the powerplant had a manufacturing defect, which ultimately caused the engine to fail.
The FAA ended the grounding on November 18, 2020, after Boeing, which manufactures the 737 Max planes, fixed the issues.
The U.S. Justice Department later brought criminal charges against Boeing related to a conspiracy to hide information from safety officials about the design of its 737 Max planes. Ultimately, Boeing, which began in Washington more than a century ago and today is the largest private employer in the state, agreed to pay $2.5 billion to settle the charges.
3. Federal tort claims act
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 (FCTA). The FCTA requires plaintiffs to follow special rules and procedures, so we encourage plaintiffs to consult with an attorney in your area who specializes in these complex cases.
4. Workers’ compensation
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.
Turbulence and in-flight injuries
Turbulence is a result of air movement created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, the air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts, or thunderstorms. Turbulence can be unexpected and can occur even when the sky appears clear.
|Turbulence injuries (2009-2018)|
Turbulence is often an unavoidable part of flying (similar to how driving through rain or over a gravel road is often an unavoidable part of driving). As a result, turbulence rarely gives rise to litigation.
Nevertheless, 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.
When most people think about aviation-related injuries, they think about plane crashes and turbulence, 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
- Slip and falls
- Passenger violence
If the in-flight injury was the result of carelessness on the part of an airline employee or another passenger, you may be able to file a lawsuit based on negligence.
Dan Cooper is the pseudonym of an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft between Portland and Seattle on November 24, 1971. The man extorted $200,000 in ransom and parachuted from the plane. Despite an extensive manhunt, the man has never been located or identified. It remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial aviation history.
What damages can be recovered after a plane crash?
Washington allows plane crash victims to recover the following damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., pain and suffering, loss of consortium).
Plane crashes and wrongful death lawsuits
Although large commercial plane crashes are extremely rare, they generally result in significant fatalities.
When someone is killed in a plane crash, certain members of their family (the surviving spouse, children, and other dependents) can file 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).
The difference is that, if the claim is successful, the family member will receive compensation for the loss of the passenger in the form of:
- Reasonable medical expenses
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Damages for the loss of the passenger’s companionship
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 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 Washington
The statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit before your claim is permanently barred.
In Washington, the vast majority of plane crash lawsuits must be filed within 3 years of the plaintiff being injured. If, however, the plaintiff is under the age of 18 when they’re injured, the 3-year clock won’t start ticking until they turn 18.
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