Aviation Accidents - Overview
As air traffic increases, so does the risk that passengers will be in an aviation accident. Generally speaking, air traffic is a safe means of transportation. But when aviation accidents occur, they often result in deaths. Smaller, less serious accidents involving private aircraft happen more often than people realize because many are not reported in the media.
Causes of Plane Crashes and Helicopter Crashes
Aviation accident law covers major air carriers and general aviation airplane accidents. General aviation is all non-commercial aircraft. It includes small planes, large business jets, charter flights, pleasure crafts, helicopters, and hang gliders.
The most common causes of major carrier and general aviation accidents include:
- Pilot error
- Faulty equipment or mechanical failures
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations violations
- Structural or design problems
- Negligence of Flight Service Station employees
- Negligence of Federal Air Traffic Controllers
- Negligence in a third party's selection of a carrier
- Harsh weather conditions
The FAA and NTSB
Two federal agencies regulate air travel and investigate every aviation accident (commercial and private aircraft) in the United States. They are the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA sets safety standards for pilot conduct, flight operations, and plane manufacturers. It also enforces FAA regulations through civil or criminal penalties. The NTSB investigates every civil aircraft accident and recommends safety standards to prevent future accidents.
Personal Injury Claims for Aviation Accidents
If you and your attorney decide to pursue a legal claim after an aviation accident, the potentially liable (legally responsible) parties can vary depending on the cause of the accident. The owner and operator of an aircraft may be liable. Manufacturers or maintenance suppliers may also be liable under certain circumstances. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the federal government may be responsible for an accident.
Aviation litigation is complex and involves many potential theories of liability under state, federal, and international law. There are several potential defendants to choose from and many different courts where a trial may occur. To hold someone legally responsible for a plane crash, the injured person (the "plaintiff") must prove that the person responsible (the "defendant") failed to meet an industry standard related to the operation, maintenance, or engineering of the aircraft. The injured person may also point to how the person responsible failed to meet relevant regulations.
The circumstances of each plane crash are different. But claims for personal injury or death (e.g., wrongful death) from an aviation accident are generally controlled by the legal theories of negligence, product liability, or some combination. Also, because two federal agencies regulate air travel, federal rules and regulations may impact a personal injury claim. They could also affect the standards of care owed to the victim of a plane crash.
Negligence is the legal term for the failure to do (or not do) something that a reasonable person would or would not have done to protect others from foreseeable risks of harm. Pilots, airline maintenance providers, and major airlines are subject to negligence claims when an aviation accident occurs.
Another legal doctrine, "product liability," refers to the legal responsibility placed on manufacturers and sellers of defective products. If a person can prove that a defective product somehow contributed to an aviation accident, then product liability may allow recovery against the manufacturer or seller of the defective product.
Liability — Owner or Operator
Aircraft owners and operators have high standards when it comes to the legal "duty of care" owed to others. If a plaintiff proves carelessness or recklessness, the owner will be liable for the damages injured parties suffer. This includes passengers, people on the ground, and even the pilot. Even if the owner was not operating the airplane when the accident occurred, the owner may still be liable under a legal theory called vicarious liability. This theory is like how employers may be legally responsible for the actions of their employees. It transfers liability from the party that has directly caused harm to an entity associated with that party.
Commercial airlines fall under the legal classification of a "common carrier" because they put themselves in public as willing to carry all passengers who buy tickets. Common air carriers have different (usually more stringent) standards than private carriers. The FAA is the principal federal agency responsible for regulating air carriers. The FAA imposes uniform standards and procedures while it monitors a carrier's internal standards. Understanding complex FAA rules and regulations is necessary to bring an aviation accident claim against a common carrier like a commercial airline.
Liability — Manufacturer
An aircraft manufacturer can be liable if the accident victim proves that a defect in the product (the aircraft) or a part caused injuries under a legal theory known as "strict liability." It is important to remember that liability laws differ from state to state. It's always important to check the laws of your state if you're confused about the law where you live.
Liability of Owner or Operator and Manufacturer — Comparative Fault
Often, the pilot and the manufacturer are liable for an aviation accident. This is a legal issue called "comparative fault," meaning that the judge or jury must decide the percentage of liability for each during the trial. For example, a pilot might be 35 percent at fault for losing control of a plane, while a manufacturer could be 65 percent for defective landing gear.
Only a few states bar recovery from a manufacturer if the pilot's negligence contributed to an airplane crash. Most states use comparative fault and distribute the blame between the various parties.
The typical categories of recoverable damages in a personal injury claim from an aviation accident include:
- Past and future medical expenses
- Lost wages and lost earning capacity
- Past and future pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
- Loss of consortium or association, usually available only to married couples
- Punitive damages
Due to state personal injury laws variances, each jurisdiction will differ in what damages may be recovered and what proof is required for each category. Many states also impose "caps" on certain damages, limiting a potential recovery.
An experienced aviation law attorney (a personal injury lawyer) can help you choose the best jurisdiction and present your damages properly. They can help ensure you are fairly compensated for your serious injuries.
Get Legal Help with Your Aviation Accident Case
Like car accidents, many issues will affect the outcome of aircraft litigation. These issues often are the parties that may be named as defendants, questions of where your case may be heard or take place, aviation engineering, industry standards, and federal government rules and regulations. Aviation accident lawyers will understand these issues and can provide you with a personal injury case evaluation at their law offices.
If you or your family members have suffered injury or the death of a loved one due to any aviation accident (including private plane accidents), it can be difficult to know where to turn. This is especially true when the defendant's insurance company isn't playing fair. A good first step is to contact an experienced personal injury attorney (aviation accident attorney) near you for a case evaluation. Learn more on our aviation accidents legal answers page.
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