Commercial flying is considered one of the safest—if not indeed the safest—means of transportation going. You have a much greater chance of being injured in an automobile accident on your way to the airport than you do of being involved in a commercial aircraft accident. Unfortunately, when there is a commercial aircraft accident, it tends to be a major disaster resulting in hundreds of deaths and significant property damage.
When a commercial aircraft is involved in an accident that results in loss of life or serious personal injuries, there may be a number of possible defendants who may be legally responsible (“liable”) for the damages. First there is the airline company itself. Because commercial airliners offer to the general public to carry goods or persons and are bound to accept anyone who offers to pay the “price of carriage” depending on seat availability, they are considered by law to be “common carriers.”
As a common carrier, an airliner is required to use the “utmost due care and diligence” for the safe passage of and to prevent injuries to its passengers and can be held financially responsible for injuries resulting from even its slightest carelessness (“negligence”). Commercial airlines are bound to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight that they can reasonably do under the circumstances to protect their passengers from harm. However, as to other planes and persons who are not passengers, the airliner owes them only the ordinary standard of care.
The major causes of a commercial aircraft accident are:
- Pilot error
- Mechanical failure due to faulty equipment
- Bad weather
- Air traffic controller error
- Improper maintenance or repair of the aircraft or its component parts
- Violating FAA regulations
- Structural or design problems with the aircraft
- Sabotage (bombs, hijacking, shoot-downs)
- Other causes (such as improper loading of the aircraft or fuel contamination)
The airline company may be held responsible for the errors of its pilots in operating the aircraft, its maintenance crew for failing to maintain the aircraft properly or failing to detect a crack or other structural problem with the aircraft, or improperly loading the aircraft. The manufacturer of the aircraft or supplier of a component part may be held liable under the doctrine of “strict products liability” for any and all defects in the manufacture or design of the plane or its defective parts that caused or contributed to the accident. The United States government may be liable where the accident is due to the negligence of one or more of its employees, usually the air traffic controllers. In a collision with another aircraft, the other aircraft may be sued if its pilots were negligent in failing to avoid the crash.
An all-too-frequent yet completely preventable cause of injuries and deaths in aircraft accidents involve “runway incursions.” The FAA defines a runway incursion as “any occurrence at an airport involving an aircraft, vehicle, person, or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in loss of separation with an aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing, or intending to land.” Runway incursions are frequently the result of the carelessness (“negligence”) of air traffic controllers in managing the flow of air traffic on the ground.
Research has shown that the first three minutes of a flight and the last eight are when about 80 percent of airplane accidents take place. This is often referred to as the rule of “plus three/minus eight.”
A professor in England analyzed the seating charts of more than 100 plane crashes and interviewed 1,900 survivors and 155 cabin-crew members. He found that the people most likely to survive a plane crash are those sitting right next to the exit row or one row away. He discovered that survivors usually move an average of five rows before they can get off a burning aircraft. The professor’s study concluded that beyond a five-row cutoff from the exit, your chances of surviving an aircraft fire are greatly reduced.
The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) is the governmental agency vested by Congress with the power to investigate all civilian aircraft accidents, whether it be a major airline disaster involving hundreds of death or a small, single-engine plane that goes down. Since its creation in 1967, the NTSB has investigated over 115,000 civilian aircraft accidents. After it has made a thorough investigation of the accident, the NTSB releases its report identifying the cause(s) of the crash—if a cause can be found—and issues safety recommendations designed to prevent future accidents from the same cause.
In conducting its investigation, the NTSB gathers data from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder if the aircraft was equipped with them. In major air disasters, the NTSB attempts to piece together the remaining parts of the plane in a hangar or other facility to try to reconstruct the plane and find the cause of the accident. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) usually takes part in the investigation to determine what accident prevention steps it should implement to prevent another occurrence of the same cause. The FAA also provides the NTSB with technical advice about the aircraft and flight conditions.
Commuter planes and regional jets are generally mid-sized planes that connect smaller cities with large ones having major airports. On February 12, 2009, Continental Connection Flight 3407, a flight operated by Colgan Air under contract to Continental, a commuter turboprop crashed into a home outside Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people, 45 passengers, four crew members, and one person on the ground in the house. The plane involved was a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, a 74-seat twin-engine, medium-range turboprop airliner. The plane was less than one-year old and had flown for only about 1,500 hours.
Early speculation was that a buildup of ice on the wings was the most probable cause of the tragedy. However, approximately a month and a half after the disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators stated that ice was not the likely cause of the crash and that it was looking at the actions of the pilot immediately before the crash. It was reported that the Flight Data Recorder indicated that the pilot’s control column—basically the device used to steer the plane—moved sharply backward, pitching the nose of the turboprop upward, causing the aircraft to stall. It is hard to recover from a stall like this, and the crew had only 1,600 to 1,800 feet to do so before the plane hit the ground. This was the deadliest American disaster in more than five years.
Another recent crash involving a commuter aircraft happened in the early morning hours of August 27, 2006. Comair Flight 191, marketed as Delta Connection Flight 5191, a 50-seat Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet CRJ-100ER bound for Atlanta crashed while trying to take off from Blue Grass Airport in Fayette County, Kentucky, four miles west of Lexington. 49 of the 50 occupants of the plane perished in the crash, with only the first officer (the copilot) surviving the crash. In the Comair disaster, Flight 5191 was cleared for take-off on Runway 22. However, for some reason the aircraft attempted to take off on Runway 26, a much shorter runway. The aircraft ran off the end of the runway, crashed through the airport perimeter fence, and came to rest in trees on an adjacent horse farm. The aircraft was destroyed by impact forces and a post-crash fire.
Runway 22 is 7,003 feet long and is lighted for nighttime use. Runway 26, on the other hand, is only 3,500 feet long, is not lighted, and is restricted for daytime use only by small airplanes. After giving the flight clearance to take off from runway 22, the sole air traffic controller on duty turned away from the window to perform an administrative task (traffic count), and did not witness the accident but heard the crash, turned around and saw fire, and immediately activated the emergency response. The aircraft was made in Canada in January 2001 and was delivered to Comair on January 30, 2001. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the disaster was the flight crew members’ failure to use available cues and aids to identify the aircraft’s location on the airport surface during taxi, as well as their failure to cross-check and verify that the aircraft was on the correct runway before takeoff. Contributing factors were the flight crew’s nonpertinent conversations during taxi, which resulted in a loss of positional awareness and the FAA’s failure to require that all runway crossings be authorized only by specific air traffic control clearances.
In 1993, a commercial jet at Blue Grass Airport was cleared for takeoff on Runway 22 but mistakenly went to the shorter Runway 26 instead. Fortunately, tower personnel noticed the mistake and cancelled the aircraft’s takeoff clearance just as the crew realized their error. The aircraft subsequently made a safe departure from Runway 22. On September 1, 2006, the FAA issued a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO), titled “Flight Crew Techniques and Procedures that Enhance Pre-takeoff and Takeoff Safety.” This alert highlights existing FAA aircraft ground operation guidance and reminds flight crews that maximum attention should be placed upon maintaining situational awareness during taxi operations.
When a passenger on a domestic commercial flight is killed in a crash, it may be possible for his or her next of kin to bring a “survival” action to recover monetary damages for the pain and suffering and mental anguish he or she experienced from the time he or she realized that something was seriously wrong with the flight until the time of his or her death.
If you have been injured or a loved one killed in an accident involving a commercial aircraft, a private airplane, or a helicopter, you should contact an experienced personal injury law firm as soon as possible. Although the NTSB usually conducts a thorough investigation of an aircraft accident, it may take many months—sometimes as much as a year or more—for the NTSB to release its findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The law firm may want to send its own investigator to the scene of the accident to inspect and take pictures of the accident site and any dangerous condition that caused or contributed to the accident, especially before the airliner changes the condition. The attorney or his or her investigator—usually an expert in reconstructing plane crashes—will also want to talk to any witnesses to the accident while the facts are still fresh in their minds.
When a commercial aircraft crashes causing a loss of life or serious injuries, the airliner and its insurance company will usually contact the next of kin immediately and provide immediate grief support. The airliner will often pay for the hotel costs of a deceased passenger’s next of kin and help make and pay for funeral arrangements. The airliner or its insurance company will frequently tell the survivors that there is no need for them to obtain a lawyer to represent them, as they will do right by them.
The insurance company may offer to pay what appears to the family to be a fair settlement. Do not accept any settlement offer from an insurance company without the advice of a skilled and experience aviation accident lawyer. The grieving family is susceptible to accepting a much lower offer than an experienced aviation lawyer can get for them. Although the airliner or its insurance company will try to dissuade you from getting a lawyer saying that a lawyer’s fee will come out of your share, the truth is that studies consistently show that victims of accidents end up with more money in their pockets even after paying the lawyer his or her fee.
An experienced personal injury law firm can also help with seeing to it that you obtain appropriate and thorough medical care for your physical, emotional, and psychological injuries suffered as a result of the accident. They can also do everything possible to ensure that you obtain full compensation for your medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, property damage, lost wages, psychological injuries, loss of society and comfort (“loss of consortium”), and all of your other injuries and damages.
We understand the physical, financial, emotional, and psychological toll a serious injury or death from a commercial aircraft accident can take on the injured victim and his or her family, or on the loved ones of a person who was killed in a commercial aircraft accident. Call now for a free legal consultation of your case – 888.845.9696.