An Overview on Aviation Accident Law
Several types of personal injury claims may apply
on December 15, 2016
Updated on March 30, 2020
Airplane travel remains one of the safest modes of transportation, but that doesn’t mean accidents never happen. There’s always some extremely slight risk of an accident while on a commercial plane—whether it’s an actual crash, or a rough landing that causes injuries. You might also be involved in an accident on a small aircraft flown by you, or someone else, that suffered a mechanical failure.
If you were involved in a plane accident, you might be considering filing a lawsuit. It can be helpful to speak with a lawyer who will help you understand the complexities of suing federal agencies or commercial airlines. The following overview can be used before that meeting, so you know the basics and feel confident asking questions.
Aviation accident law addresses any kind of accident involving an aircraft, be it commercial or a small plane. There are a number of personal injury cases you can bring forward if you were involved in a plane accident, and you should note that there are some federal statutes that might affect your case.
Types of Cases
In general, if you are bringing a lawsuit after an aviation accident, you will be bringing a personal injury claim. Personal injury cases use an area of civil law called “tort,” which address non-contractual harm and seeks to compensate victims for their financial losses and pain and suffering.
You might consider a negligence case when an error caused the accident that caused your injuries. This doesn’t mean just any mistake is enough to form the foundation of a negligence case, of course—but rather that you will have to show that the mistake is one a reasonable pilot mechanic or manufacturer would not have made in the same situation. Proving this will often require the use of expert witnesses who can testify about the acceptable performance standards, and whether or not a person following those standards would have made the same mistake.
Products liability cases are brought when a defect in the design or manufacturing caused the product to fail and cause injury. You likely won’t have to show a huge defect, because a small problem with the design of an airplane can affect other, larger parts of the plane, causing it to fail. These are usually strict liability claims, which means you only have to show there was a defect, not that the defect was caused by carelessness or intentional actions. For more information about products liability actions, you can follow this link.
Wrongful death actions are brought when the victim of a plane crash dies, and they are usually brought by the decedent’s surviving spouse or heirs. The foundation of the case will likely rest on products liability or negligence, as, instead of a survivor of the accident arguing that these things caused their injuries, you will be arguing that defects or carelessness caused someone’s death. Rules about who can bring these actions can vary by state, because the actions were created by state statutes. More information about wrongful death lawsuits, including what you will need to prove to be successful, can be found here.
For the most part, the legal theories you will be using to prove your case will use state law. However, there are some federal statutes that can affect who you can sue and how much you can recover.
Federal Tort Claims Act
Sometimes, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) will be at fault for your plane accident, and that means you will want to include the agency as a defendant in your lawsuit. Because they agency is part of the federal executive branch, it traditionally enjoys immunity from lawsuits. But the Federal Tort Claims Act creates a way for you to bring a case when the FAA employee error causes a crash.
Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act
This act requires airlines to assist family members of people involved in plane accidents. Under this act, airlines must establish a phone line for family members to call for information; create a list of people who boarded the flight, which is provided to family members before it is made public; inform family members of deaths; and help transport family members to the location of the accident.
General Aviation Regulation Act
This act creates a limitation on when you can file a products liability case against a manufacturer of an airplane. You may not be able to sue manufacturers of plane parts for certain types of planes, or when the parts have been is use for a long time. If you are considering a products liability case, you may want to speak with a lawyer to understand whether this act applies in your case.
Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.
- Who is responsible for airplane accidents?
- How much do airlines pay crash victims?
- Can you sue for a private plane crash?
- Do airlines have life insurance?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
In order to prove your case, you will most likely speak with experts in the aviation field who can testify about the standards that should have been followed during your flight, or in the manufacture of your airplane. These witnesses will testify to things that are highly technical, and they can be hard to understand. An experienced lawyer will have a relationship with experts and the knowledge necessary to understand the expert’s testimony.
Your lawyer can also help gather necessary documents, such as maintenance history or flight logs. They will interview the parties involved in your accident, like the pilot, other passengers or mechanics who worked on your plane. A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them, as well as keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies—giving you one less thing to worry about.
Why Super Lawyers?
Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high-degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The patented selection process includes independent research, peer nominations and peer evaluations. The objective is to create a credible, comprehensive and diverse listing of outstanding attorneys that can be used as a resource for attorneys and consumers searching for legal counsel. As Super Lawyers is intended to be used as an aid in selecting a lawyer, we limit the lawyer ratings to those who can be hired and retained by the public. You can learn more about the selection process here.