Although serious injuries from turbulence and in-flight mishaps are rare, they do happen. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), around 58 passengers are injured every year in turbulence incidents, and a number of other passengers suffer injuries due to baggage falling from overhead bins, or through slips and falls on the way to the restroom.
Injured passengers may have legal claims against the airline, its employees, aircraft and component manufacturers, or even the FAA. Here's a look at common in-flight accidents and the types of legal claims available if you have been injured on a plane.
A large number of in-flight injuries result from luggage falling out of overhead bins. According to one estimate, approximately 4,500 passengers are injured each year from falling baggage. Another common cause of injury is rolling food carts. Carts can injure seated passengers when rolling by, ramming shoulders or other body parts, or can hit passengers who are moving about the cabin.
Turbulence causes a number of in-flight accidents every year as well. 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).
The specific legal claims available to passengers injured on airplanes depends on what (and who) caused the accident.
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 plaintiff must prove that the law required the defendant to be reasonably careful, that the defendant was not careful, and that this carelessness caused the plaintiff 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 while they 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.
Examples of negligent acts. 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 failing to properly latch an overhead bin that then opens mid-flight, dumping luggage on a passenger's head). Airlines may also be negligent if they do not provide proper training to airline personnel, or have policies that don't adequately protect passengers.
Liability for injuries caused by turbulence. 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 was able to foresee the turbulence (and often they can), 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. Similarly, 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.
Negligence claims against the FAA. 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.)
Not all in-flight injuries are the result of 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.
Some accidents might have several causes. For example, if a loading ramp manufacturer produces a ramp with a bump and that bump 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 bump and warned passengers, but failed to do so, the airline may be on the hook too (under a negligence theory of liability).
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.