Airplane Turbulence and In-Flight Injuries

Airline passengers suffering in-flight injuries may be able to sue the airline, the manufacturer of the aircraft, or the maker of any faulty equipment.

By , Attorney · Northwestern University School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

With millions of people taking thousands of flights in and out of the U.S. each day, it's no surprise that in-flight injuries occur. Depending on the specifics of the incident, an Injured passenger may have a personal injury claim against an airline, aircraft and component manufacturers, or even the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Let's look at common in-flight accidents and the types of legal claims that might be an option if you've been injured while traveling aboard a plane.

Types and Causes of In-Flight Injuries

Although serious injuries from in-flight mishaps are rare, they do happen. Let's look at some of the most common causes of these kinds of injuries.

Luggage Falling Out of Overhead Bins

According to estimates, as many as 5,000 airline passengers are injured each year from carry-on luggage falling out of overhead bins. These incidents can occur when a bin isn't properly secured and pops open on its own, or when it's opened by a passenger or flight attendant and luggage is allowed to fall out.

Injuries Caused By Rolling Food and Beverage Carts

The food and beverage carts that flight attendants roll down airplane aisles are necessarily bulky and heavy. When these carts make contact with seated passengers' shoulders, elbows, knees, feet, or other body parts, injuries can occur. Passengers can also be struck by carts while moving about the cabin.

Slip/Trip and Fall Accidents

Passengers can slip and fall (or trip and fall) almost any time they're moving around in the cramped confines of a commercial airliner, including on the way to or from the airplane's lavatory, and in the lavatory itself.

Turbulence

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), only around a dozen airline passengers and crewmembers are seriously injured every year in turbulence incidents. So these kinds of incidents are extremely rare, but when they occur they tend to get a lot of media attention.

Bumpy rides can cause unbelted passengers and crew members to be thrown from their seats. A crucial factor in these kinds of injury cases is what the flight crew did (or didn't do) to warn or instruct passengers just before the turbulence occurred (more on this later).

Who Is Liable If You Get Injured On an Airplane?

The specific options available to passengers injured on airplanes depend on what (and who) caused the accident. The careless conduct ("negligence") of a flight attendant or other airline employee can put the airline on the legal hook for passenger injuries, but other parties might be liable as well.

Airline Injury Claims Based on Negligence

If the accident was caused by the carelessness or inattention of an airline employee—such as a pilot, maintenance worker, ground crew member, or flight attendant—then the most likely claim is based on the legal theory of negligence. In a standard negligence claim, the injured passenger must prove that:

  • the circumstances required the airline or its employee to be reasonably careful
  • the airline/employee wasn't careful enough, and
  • this carelessness caused the passenger to be injured.

"Common carrier" standard—a heightened duty of care. Airlines fall into a legal category called "common carriers"—entities that transport the general public for a fee. The law imposes a heightened duty of care on common carriers. Airlines and other common carriers must act with a high degree of care and use the vigilance of a very cautious person in order to protect passengers from potential harm.

This standard of care extends to the airline's employees as well (including pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, maintenance workers, and the airline's own safety inspectors). But keep in mind that airlines are not responsible for the actions of federal government inspectors.

Airlines owe this heightened duty of care to passengers who are boarding the plane, traveling on board the aircraft, and getting off the plane. Once the passengers disembark, however, the airline is off the hook.

Airlines Are Usually Liable for the Negligence of Their Employees

Under the legal concept of "respondeat superior" (Latin for "Let the superior answer"), an employer is usually responsible for the actions of its employees, as long as the worker is acting within the "course and scope" of employment. So, the negligence of a flight attendant or other airline worker will almost always transfer to the airline itself. Learn more about employer liability for employees' actions.

Airline employees can be negligent by:

  • affirmatively doing something (like leaving an object in the middle of the aisle that causes a passenger to trip and fall), or
  • failing to do something (like forgetting to properly latch an overhead bin that then opens mid-flight, dumping luggage on a passenger's head).

Airlines can be held negligent for employee action/inaction, and also for, among other things:

  • failing to provide proper training to airline personnel, and
  • implementing policies that don't adequately protect passengers.

Are Airlines Liable for Turbulence-Related Injuries?

If you were injured because of in-flight turbulence, but you were walking around the cabin after the captain announced that all passengers should be seated with their seat belts fastened, you'll probably have a hard time proving that the airline was negligent.

But what if the seat belt lights were off, and no warning or instruction was given? If the flight crew should have been able to foresee the turbulence but failed to warn passengers to fasten seat belts or otherwise take precautions to protect passengers from injury, the airline might be liable for passenger injuries.

Along these same lines, if the pilot should have been able to predict the turbulence, but failed to do so due to lack of vigilance, the airline could be on the hook for injuries caused by the turbulence.

Can the FAA Be Liable for Injuries Aboard Airliners?

The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is responsible for controlling all air traffic. If an FAA employee's carelessness causes a passenger to be injured (for example, an air controller's inattention causes a "fender bender" on the runway that in turn causes a passenger to sustain injuries), the passenger may be able to sue the FAA for negligence. However, because the FAA is a federal agency, special rules and procedures apply to the lawsuit. (Learn more about suing the government for negligence.)

In-Flight Injuries Can Lead to Product Liability Claims

Not all in-flight injuries result from a mistake made by someone who works for the airline. Sometimes the aircraft itself—or parts or equipment on the aircraft, like overhead bins or loading ramps—are defective.

If a passenger is injured by a defective aircraft or equipment, this may give rise to a product liability claim. For example, if a design defect causes an overhead bin latch to come loose mid-flight, a passenger injured by falling luggage may have a claim against the overhead bin manufacturer.

Accidents involving aircraft equipment might have several causes. For example, if a loading ramp manufacturer produces a ramp with an uneven surface that causes an elderly passenger to fall and sustain leg injuries, the passenger may have a product liability claim against the ramp manufacturer. However, if the airline maintenance crew should have noticed the problem and taken steps to protect passengers, the airline may be on the hook too (under a negligence theory of liability).

What Kind of Compensation Can I Get for In-Flight Injuries?

In most lawsuits over in-flight injuries, a passenger might be able to ask for compensation ("damages" in the language of the law) that covers a number of types of losses, including:

  • the cost of past and future medical care necessary to treat the in-flight injuries
  • any income lost because of inability to work due to the injuries, and
  • mental and physical "pain and suffering" resulting from the injuries.

Get more details about damages in personal injury cases.

Getting Help After an In-Flight Injury

If you suffer any kind of in-flight injury, you can start by letting the airline know about it. Federal law requires airlines to maintain a passenger complaint submission protocol, and to respond to all written complaints (including those submitted online) within 60 days. (The FAA also maintains a hotline for reporting travel problems, concerns, and complaints, including safety issues. The toll-free number is 866-835-5322.)

If your in-flight injuries are significant and you think the airline was obviously at fault—or if you've tried unsuccessfully to resolve the matter yourself—it may be time to put your case in the hands of an experienced personal injury lawyer.

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