Last updated: 12/30/2015
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 turbluence 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 that are moving about the cabin. Some passengers suffer ankle and other injuries when they fall or bump into objects while going to the lavatory or 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. The number of turbulence-related injuries spiked in 2009 and 2010, with 75 injuries to passengers and crew in 2009, and 76 such injuries the following year, according to the FAA. These numbers have dropped in recent years, but incidents continue to make the news. In September 2015, 40 passengers and crewmembers were injured on board a Qatar Airways flight that encountered turbulence over the Phillipines.
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 legal claim is for 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 onboard 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 which don't adequately protect passengers.
Turbulence and "acts of god." An airline is not liable for accidents that occur due to "acts of god," that is, unforeseen events of nature that cannot be prevented. Turbulence is a good example of an act of god. The airline cannot always anticipate turbulence, and if a passenger is injured from turbulence while the airline and attendants were vigilant in protecting everyone, the airline will not be held liable.
However, airlines cannot always hide behind the "act of god" defense when passengers are injured in turbulence. For example, 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 which 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. (To learn about the rules and procedures for suing a federal agency, see Nolo's article Suing the Government for Negligence: The Federal Tort Claims Act.)
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. (To learn more about products liability claims, see Nolo's Product Liability FAQ.)
Some accidents may 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).
The FAA maintains a hotline for reporting travel problems, concerns, and complaints, including safety issues. The toll-free number is 866-835-5322.
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 on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to find out about the lawyer's experience, if any, with in-flight accident litigation).