Although flying on a commercial airplane is safer than traveling by car, crashes do occur. Moreover, general aviation accidents involving single engine and charter planes are more common than commercial airliner accidents. Regardless of the type of aircraft involved, these accidents often result in catastrophic injuries and death that are the basis for personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits.

Common Causes of Plane Crashes

In some cases, weather conditions can contribute to a plane accident, however, most crashes are caused by a variety of other factors, including:

  • Pilot error
  • Mechanical failure
  • Design flaws or structural problems
  • Improper maintenance or repair
  • Air traffic controller errors
  • Fuel problems
  • FAA violations

Commercial Airline Accident Claims

Despite the fact that the federal government provides support services to survivors and families of victims of major airline disasters, legal claims can be brought against an airline, aircraft and parts manufacturers and other negligent parties. Determining the cause of an aviation accident can be difficult, however, because more than one factor is typically involved.

Nonetheless, some of the common legal claims in airplane accident cases include:

  • Negligence – Injured parties and survivors of loved ones may be able to bring a negligence claim if the accident was the direct result of pilot error or mistake by another person. In order to have a valid claim, it is necessary to demonstrate that the victims were injured or killed due the carelessness of a pilot or another responsible party. In the case of pilot error, for example, this means showing that he or she was not reasonably careful or skillful and that a capable pilot would have acted differently under the same circumstances.
  • Product liability – If defective equipment, design flaws, or structural problems contributed to the plane crash, it is possible to bring a product liability claim against the manufacturer or distributor of the aircraft. The basis of such claims is that a design or manufacturing defect in the plane or equipment caused the accident that led to the injuries or deaths. Because the legal theory of “strict liability” applies in such cases, it is not necessary to show that the defendant was negligent.
  • Federal Tort Claims Act – If the airplane accident was caused by the the carelessness of an employee of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), such as an air traffic controller, claims must be brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). In lawsuits against federal government employees, there are special rules and procedures under the Act which must be followed.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is responsible for investigating major airplane accidents, plaintiffs in a lawsuit and their attorneys may decide to conduct an independent investigation to establish the defendant’s liability. In any event, accidents involving commercial airlines present a number of legal challenges. Moreover, airlines, aircraft manufacturers and their insurance companies employee powerful teams of attorneys, giving them an unfair advantage over accident victims.

Small Aircraft Accident Claims

In lawsuits related to accidents involving smaller aircrafts, it is necessary to determine the cause of the crash and who is at fault. Whether the accident was due to improper maintenance, mechanical failure or design flaws, detecting these problems can be difficult. However, aircraft owners are required to conduct routine inspections and pilots are responsible for performing pre-flight inspections to ensure the plane is flight worthy. A lawsuit based on negligence can be brought against owners and/or pilots who fail to conduct these inspections.

Legal Defenses

It is important to note that defendants in an aviation accident can assert a number of defenses that are typically raised in negligence or product liability lawsuits. Moreover, operators of smaller aircraft have an additional defense under the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994. This law bars lawsuits against small aircraft manufacturers (those with less than 30 seats) if the accident involved an airplane part that has been in service 18 years or longer.

Given these defenses and the complex legal, scientific and technical issues related to airplane accidents, victims or surviving family members who are considering filing a civil lawsuit are well advised to consult with an experienced airplane accident attorney.