Most experts agree that flying is the safest way to travel. Nevertheless, aviation accidents do happen. When they do, they can be catastrophic in terms of injuries and fatalities. In 2007, there were 86 commercial aircraft accidents, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Fourteen of these were fatal, taking the lives of 43 people. All fatalities occurred in aircraft with fewer than 10 seats. Non-commercial (general aviation) accidents numbered 1,631, killing 491 people.
Negligence is almost always a factor in aviation accidents. Those harmed as a result of negligent behavior on the part of the pilot, a manufacturer, or someone else often are able to receive compensation for their expenses and suffering. A pilot may be found criminally negligent in a separate criminal case if his or her negligent action, such as the consumption of alcohol, contributed to an aviation accident that caused someone harm. The consequences of these actions on the part of a pilot may be similar to DUI consequences.
To learn more about airplane accidents and their legal implications, contact a personal injury attorney. If one of your family members was killed in a plane crash, you may be able to receive compensation by filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
Aviation Accidents and the Law
An aviation accident is any event or sequence of events involving an aircraft that causes property damage, harms someone or causes death. An accident can occur while the aircraft is on the ground, in ascent, in flight or in descent. Many airplane accidents involve an element of negligence.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart, piloting a Lockheed 10E "Electra," disappeared over the Pacific Ocean about a hundred miles off the coast of Howland Island, 7,000 miles short of achieving her goal of being the first woman to fly around the world. She already had the distinction of being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Amelia's last intelligible radio communication indicated that her plane was running low on fuel. Though an extensive search of the sea was conducted, no evidence of her, her navigator, Fred Noonan, or her plane was ever found. Researchers believe Amelia's inexperience with radio navigation may have contributed to the accident.
In order to receive a settlement or court award for harm caused by an aviation accident, the plaintiff must demonstrate to an insurance company or court that negligence was a factor. A victim's claim must show that someone involved in the accident acted carelessly or irresponsibly. In the case of an aircraft accident, negligence is usually linked to facts derived from an NTSB investigation report, which includes eyewitness testimony, expert witness testimony, radar data, black box data (in jetliner accidents), photographs and sketches of the crash scene, and so forth. To win the case, a victim must prove that:
- The accident was caused by someone's carelessness
- The accident caused harm
- Harm caused by the accident should be paid for by the party at fault
Many courts and insurance companies are heavily influenced by direct evidence given in eyewitness testimonies. For example, the statement of a bystander, who witnessed an air traffic controller go on break while the staff was shorthanded just before a midair collision in that controller's sector, is convincing evidence of air traffic controller negligence.
To prove harm done, injuries must be directly linked to the aviation accident. Aviation accident injuries can be minor to severe, if not fatal. Among others, they may include:
- Spinal cord injuries
- Cuts or lacerations
- Broken bones
- Head and neck injuries
- Abdominal injuries
If there is more than one party at fault, courts may use the theory of comparative negligence to divide the responsibility between more than one party, basing the calculation on percentage of fault attributable to each party.
Victims of airplane accidents often seek compensation for:
- Medical Expenses
- Property Repairs
- Lost Income
- Physical Pain
- Psychological Suffering
- Lost Opportunities
Insurance companies and juries typically use formulas to establish the amount of compensation paid. The severity of harm is taken into account for each case.
Causes of Aviation Accidents
Most aviation accidents can be traced to negligence in the form of one or more Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) violation. Common violations involve the following:
- Licenses and certificates
- Aircraft airworthiness
- Flight rules
- Hazardous materials
When an accident investigation cites an FAA violation, claims are strengthened.
A number of factors contribute to FAA violations that lead to aviation accidents. Most fall into one or more of the following three categories:
- Human Error
- Equipment Failure
- Environmental Conditions
Mistakes made by pilots, flight crews, air traffic controllers and ground crews cause most aviation accidents. These mistakes are usually influenced by one or more of the following:
- Improper training
- Inadequate manuals, guides and operational procedures
- Improper flight planning
- Spatial disorientation
- Misinterpretation of human communication or instrument information
- Intoxication (drugs, alcohol, medications)
- Medical problems
- Stressful work environment
The fatal airplane crash that claimed the lives of John F. Kennedy, Jr. his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, is a prime example of an aviation accident caused by human error. According to the NTSB, Kennedy "lost control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was the result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze, and the dark night."
Some aviation accidents are caused by equipment malfunction. Common mechanical failures leading to a plane crash involve:
- Landing gear
- Fuel management components
- Structural design
- Structure (overload or fatigue)
A malfunction might point to negligence on the part of the pilot or owner for not maintaining the aircraft, the service provider for not performing good maintenance or the manufacturer for designing a flawed aircraft or aircraft parts.
First Airplane Accident Fatality
Aircraft equipment failure has been an issue since the earliest days of aviation. On September 17, 1908, at Fort Myer, Virginia, Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge became the first airplane accident fatality. He was a passenger in a plane piloted by Orville Wright in a demonstration for the Army. During one of Wright's turning maneuvers, the propeller snapped off, causing the plane to crash into the ground about 110 feet below. Selfridge died later that day. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sabotage leading to equipment failure is a criminal violation, and is therefore prosecuted in a criminal court. However, a civil suit against an alleged saboteur can be filed and compensation obtained, regardless of the verdict in the criminal case.
If you or someone you love was injured in an aviation accident caused by equipment failure, the manufacturer of the equipment may be liable under product defect laws. A personal injury attorney can help make this determination, explain your rights and determine if you are eligible for a settlement or court award.
Several environmental conditions can contribute to an aviation accident, including:
- Weather (snow, rain, lightning, wind and wind shear, icing, etc.)
- Wildlife hazards
- Airway congestion
- Runway congestion
- Hijacker on board
Because hijacking is a criminal violation, it is tried in a criminal court. However, this does not prevent a suit from being filed in a civil court as well. A personal injury lawyer can advise you of your rights and help you obtain appropriate compensation.
When You Might Need a Personal Injury Attorney
Most accident claims are managed by insurance companies. However, the majority of these claims only involve property damage. When other factors are involved, it is a good idea to speak with a personal injury attorney. Many victims who choose not to review their cases with an attorney do not receive full compensation.
Victims of aviation accidents should review their rights and determine if they need to file a case, especially if:
- They have not been fully reimbursed for all of their expenses caused by the accident, including medical bills, property damage, lost income and psychological pain. The claim is delayed by the insurance company. The insurance company fails to acknowledge the fault of the negligent party and denies the claim. The negligent party's insurance company policy does not cover the accident. The negligent party does not have insurance.
In addition, victims should seek the help of a personal injury attorney if a government entity denies a claim.