Although airplane crashes are extremely rare, they do happen. When a major airline disaster occurs, the federal government provides support services to the families of victims and to survivors. Those families and survivors may also be able to bring various legal claims against the airline, aircraft and parts manufacturers, and others, depending on what caused the crash.
Here's a primer on the legal claims and defenses available in airplane accident lawsuits and how the federal government provides support to the families of airplane crash victims.
Airplane Crash Litigation
Determining the cause of an airplane crash or a near-crash that causes injuries (such as an emergency landing in freezing water) is often the key consideration in deciding which legal claims to bring and who to sue.
Most airplane crashes are caused by one or more of the following:
- pilot error
- defective equipment
- defective design or structural problems with the airplane
- errors made by federal air traffic controllers
- faulty maintenance or repair of the airplane, and
- fuel problems.
Determining what caused an airplane crash can be extremely difficult. More often than not, more than one factor contributed to the accident. The federal National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is charged with investigating major aircraft crashes, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may lend a hand as well, depending on the nature of the crash. Other individuals may conduct an independent investigation, such as plaintiffs in a lawsuit and their attorneys.
Although there are many types of legal claims that could stem from a plane crash, most depend on what caused the crash. Below is a look at some common legal claims in airplane crash cases.
Product liability claims. When defective equipment, faulty design, or structural problems are suspected as major factors in a plane crash, plaintiffs may bring a product liability claim against the manufacturer or distributor of the aircraft or the faulty part. These claims allege that some design or manufacturing defect in the plane or equipment caused people to be injured or die. In most cases, the legal theory of "strict liability" applies -- this means that the plaintiff does not have to prove that the defendant was negligent (careless), but only that a defect caused injury. (To learn more about strict products liability, see Nolo's article Defective Products Claims: Theories of Liability.)
Negligence. If the crash was due to pilot error or other human mistake, plaintiffs may bring a negligence claim, alleging that the victims were injured or killed as a direct result of the carelessness of the pilot or other actor. In negligence claims, the plaintiffs must show that the defendant (for example, the pilot) was not reasonably careful or skillful and that a competent pilot would have acted differently.
Federal Tort Claims Act. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is responsible for controlling all air traffic in the U.S. When the carelessness of an FAA employee causes an airplane accident, plaintiffs must sue under the Federal tort claims act (FTCA). The FTCA sets forth special rules and procedures that must be followed when suing an employee of the federal government. (To learn more about the FTCA, see Nolo's article Suing the Government for Negligence: The Federal Tort Claims Act.)
Defendants in airplane crash litigation may respond to a legal claim by asserting many of the defenses that are available in a typical negligence or product liability case. (To learn about these defenses, see Nolo's article Defenses in Personal Injury Cases.)
Operators of smaller aircraft for private use have an additional defense. The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 bars lawsuits against the manufacturer of a small (less than 20 seats), private airplane if the accident involved an airplane or part that has been in service for 18 years or more.
Federal Assistance for Families of Airplane Crash Victims
The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 requires the federal government to provide support to families of victims in major airplane crashes or accidents, places certain duties on the airline, and limits attorney solicitation of airplane crash victims.
Duties of the National Transportation Safety Board
Under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) must designate an independent nonprofit organization to coordinate services for the disaster survivors and victims' families. These services include:
- mental health and counseling services
- meeting with families of victims
- providing a place for families to grieve without disruption by the press or attorneys
- victim identification and forensic services
- daily briefings to families
- arranging a memorial service
- communicating with foreign governments, and
- translation services.
Responsibilities of the Airline
The Act also places duties on the airline involved in the crash. Among other things, the airline must:
- establish a toll-free telephone line for families of victims
- list all passengers on the flight, and inform families of those passengers before the list is made public
- inform families of the death of family members, and
- assist the families in traveling to the location of the accident and provide room and board for family members.
Limits on Attorney Solicitation
In the early 1990's, families of victims of several high profile airplane crashes complained of constant harassment by attorneys in the days immediately following the crash and even at memorial services. In response, Congress included a provision in the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act that prohibits lawyers and their agents from unsolicited communications with crash survivors and victims' families within 45 days after the crash.
The legal and scientific issues in airplane accident lawsuits are often complex and sophisticated. People considering bringing a legal claim based on an airplane crash or who are contemplating joining a class action lawsuit are well advised to get legal help. For help in choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area. (Click the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to find out about the lawyer's experience, if any, with airplane crash litigation).