An Overview on Aviation Accident Law
Several types of personal injury claims may apply.By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 28, 2023
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Common Questions for an Attorney
- Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
- Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
Air 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 resulting from mechanical failure or pilot error on a small private aircraft operated by you or someone else.
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 a commercial aircraft or small plane. Some common causes of plane accidents include:
- Pilot error
- Federal Air Traffic Controller error
- Aircraft structural or design defects
- Faulty equipment
Who Regulates Air Travel in the United States?
Two federal agencies are primarily responsible for regulating air travel and aviation safety in the United States:
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Created under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the FAA is responsible for the safety of civil aviation in the United States. The FAA’s roles include issuing and enforcing aviation safety regulations, managing air space and traffic, and building and maintaining air navigation infrastructure.
- National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates and determines the probable cause of civil aviation accidents in the United States. Based on its investigations, the NTSB makes safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. Under the federal Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, the NTSB along with the air carrier involved provides assistance to survivors and family members of loved ones involved in aircraft accidents.
In addition to the NTSB’s family assistance program, there are a number of personal injury cases you can bring forward if you were an injured party 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. Rather, 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 the duty of care 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 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. Products liability claims usually involve 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. Learn more about products liability actions.
Wrongful death actions are brought when the victim of a plane crash dies. These cases are usually brought by the decedent’s surviving spouse or heirs. The foundation of the case will likely rest on products liability or negligence. Instead of a survivor of the accident arguing that certain things caused their injuries, you will be arguing that defects or carelessness caused someone’s death. Rules known as legal standing requirements determine who can bring these actions, and the rules vary by state since the actions are created by state statutes. Learn more about wrongful death lawsuits, including what you will need to prove to be successful.
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 the agency is part of the executive branch of the federal government, it traditionally enjoys immunity from lawsuits. However, the Federal Tort Claims Act creates a way for you to bring a case when an FAA employee error causes a crash.
Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act
As noted above, this act requires the NTSB and 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 Revitalization 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.
Common Questions for an Attorney
Many personal injury attorneys or aviation accident lawyers will provide free initial consultations to learn more about your situation and provide a case evaluation. Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with a for the first time.
- What is your experience with aviation accident cases?
- What are your attorney’s fees and billing options?
- Who is responsible for airplane accidents?
- How much do airlines pay crash victims?
- Will damages cover my medical expenses?
- Can you sue for a private plane crash?
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.
To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a personal injury lawyer who has experience representing plaintiffs in aviation accidents.
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.
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