An Overview of Plane and Aviation Accidents
While air travel is certainly a safer means of travel than most other forms of transportation, things can and do go wrong. Much like accidents involving cars and trucks, the vast majority of plane and airline crashes are caused by operator error, yet a significant number are caused by other factors such as mechanical failure. And when such events transpire, accident victims often file suit against the responsible parties. With the right attorney helping you, this marks the first step in your journey toward pursuing justice, compensation, and closure. But with the wrong attorney at the helm, your troubles are just getting started.
Simply put: Filing lawsuits against airlines, private pilots, and airplane manufacturers involves some of the most complex and specialized legal issues a lawyer can face. Because of this fact, you must carefully select an appropriate attorney for your case, and you can only know how to select the right attorney by first understanding how these cases work. As such, this article will walk you through ins and outs of the modern aviation injury case, wherein, we will explain:
- What makes these cases so complex
- How the right attorney is up to the challenge
- What the law has to say about plane accidents
- What your rights are either as someone who was injured in a plane accident or as someone who lost a loved one to an aviation disaster.
Our FAQ page may also provide some helpful information, and you can see some commonly asked questions about aviation accidents along with our replies.
What an Attorney Needs to Know to Help You With Your Case
The reason that many lawyers shy away from aviation cases is simply due to the fact that there are many moving parts to consider. After all, why bother litigating plane accident cases when you can spend considerably less effort handling dozens of car accident cases? Our answer: because aviation accident victims have special needs that require competent representation. We are not at all intimidated by complex litigation, and aviation accidents are indeed multifaceted. But where does this complexity come from? Well, there are many overlapping bodies of law and multiple governmental organizations at work in any air-related injury case.
For starters, both the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) have a place at the table.
The FAA is a regulatory body established under the tenure of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Their purpose is to create regulations for, and oversee all aspects of, the aviation industry. They are charged with the responsibility of creating rules ensure that air travel is as safe as possible, and they are also responsible for licensure and certification of pilots, not to mention revoking those licenses for any pilot who fails to follow the safety rules. The various rules promulgated by the FAA will play a significant role in any airplane accident case since proving a defendant is legally liable for your accident often requires showing an FAA rule was violated (though there are other ways to establish liability).
The NTSB is a division of the Department of Transportation. The NTSB's responsibilities include accident investigation and reporting for aviation, railroads, highways, marine and pipeline accidents. The NTSB investigates these types of accidents nationwide and develops a report for each accident, which are normally available online. These reports are extensive and in depth, reporting on how the accident occurred, what caused the accident, and how the accident can be avoided in the future. Further, they will take the information regarding what caused a particular accident and, along with the FAA, create rules and regulations to improve safety with regard to that particular matter.In aviation accidents, the NTSB will send investigators to the scene of the accident to gather up all of the parts and pieces of the wrecked aircraft. The NTSB will then attempt to recreate or rebuild the aircraft at a secure location. Normally, in truck accident cases or work injury cases, we deal with governmental investigative organizations who also provide reports, and, frankly, their investigative efforts are usually lacking. On the contrary, the NTSB is one governmental organization that really has investigative work down to a science. The only downside is that their reports take many months to complete, while the deadlines to file suit and begin a legal case wait for no man. We strongly recommend that anyone wishing to pursue an aviation case NOT wait until the NTSB report is available to pursue legal action.
Your Lawyer Needs to Understand How to Handle Sensitive Evidence
Beyond the involvement of the FAA and the NTSB, there are a few other things you need to know about aviation accidents, starting with how to investigate them. When you hear the word "investigation," the first thing that comes to mind is a police detective or a Sherlock Holmes-type character. Accident investigation is as much about turning up the right kind of evidence to support your case as it is about doing so within the confines of the restrictive evidentiary rules which dictate how a lawyer goes about investigating in the first place.
Of course, in addition to trying to discover what caused the plane to crash, part of the investigation will be about who is responsible for pilot error, if there was any.
Before an attorney can start to investigate a plane crash, he has to know where to look.
- Black Box Data: This is perhaps the most obvious place to start. The black box data records everything going on inside the plane when it crashed, including information about the engines, fuel levels, and even audio recordings. Now, the NTSB's investigation will include the black box data, and because it's a government-run operation, they'll get the black box data first. If your attorney knows how to file the right subpoenas, he can get permission to access the black box and investigate it himself.
- Plane Wreckage: Naturally, the wreckage of the plane can provide vital clues about the accident. This too will need to be examined by your legal team.
- Air Traffic Controllers and Airports: It's important to double-check the plane's flight history, including all airports and terminals where it had taken off and landed. People like air traffic controllers and other airport officials can provide important information about the plane, including whether or not they noticed anything strange or out of place.
- Earwitnesses and Eyewitnesses: Very few planes crash without someone noticing, and that can be visually or audibly. By talking to people who saw the plane go down, you can start to flesh out what happened. Did the plane shake? Was it flying at erratic heights? Alternatively, a plane with engine trouble will likely make some very distinct sounds. Getting a statement from people who heard the plane crash can help you determine if there were any engine issues, etc.
One other vital component to an accident investigation is expert witnesses' and industry professionals' testimony. Because your case will eventually be in front of a jury, it's important that they're adequately convinced that your case is worth something. In legal industry jargon, we call that establishing value.
Now, you might be thinking, "Wait a minute, attorneys are supposed to be experts. Why involve an outsider?" That's a good question. The simple answer is that we're experts in this area of the law, but we're not airplane experts. We've never flown planes before or rebuilt their engines, so it's important that we find experts and professionals within the aviation industry who can give us an "inside look." For example, a lawsuit against a doctor for medical malpractice needs the testimony of an actual doctor. It's one thing for an attorney to tell a jury about what the negligent doctor did wrong, but it's a lot more believable if the attorney has a an actual doctor testify to the jury for him. In the same way, it's helpful to have air traffic controllers, pilots, and accident reconstruction experts to testify in an aviation accident case.
Further, juries don't find the opinions of attorneys regarding factual matters to be very compelling. Naturally, they know that we want to win, so they'd rather not have to take us at our word. When an industry expert testifies, the jury gets to hear from an unbiased third party, rather than simply rely on the explanation supplied by a lawyer. Since they are so persuasive, expert witnesses are the norm in aviation accident cases, or any other case that features technical elements.
Here's a list of the most common expert witnesses and professionals we use to explain to the jury what happened:
- Air traffic controller
- Plane mechanic or technician
- Accident reconstructionist
- Black box specialist
We mentioned at the top of this section that any accident investigation has rules and restrictions. These are called the rules of evidence. The basic idea is that your investigation can just be a haphazard process where you just grab evidence and bring it to court. Witness statements must be gathered and put in affidavit form, and can't include things like hearsay. Furthermore, for evidence from an investigation to be admissible in court, it must go through a prove-up process. You might have the "silver bullet" piece of evidence that proves your case without a doubt, but if you don't follow the prove-up procedures, it will never make it court and a jury will never see it.
- Rules of Evidence: Affadavits
- How to Prove Up Evidence
Your Lawyer Needs to Be Familiar With The Federal Court System
After gathering and establishing the evidence in your case, your attorney needs to know where to file the lawsuit. Legally speaking, this is referred to as a matter of "venue."
- Is it filed in the state where the crash occurred?
- Is it filed in the state where the airline is based?
- Is it filed in the state where the victim is from?
When the plaintiff and the defendant live in different states, there is almost always an impropriety between the laws of each party's respective state. For instance, if you live in Texas and are hurt by someone who operates a plane out of Oklahoma, you will need to file suit against them, and you may want to pursue the case in plaintiff-friendly Texas while they may want to pursue the case in defendant-friendly Oklahoma. Such a scenario is referred to "diversity of citizenship," which simply means that there are parties from multiple states involved and, since it isn't clear which state's court is more appropriate, the federal court system becomes the proper place for the suit to be filed. Naturally, an attorney must be licensed in federal court before he can file suit there, and he must be familiar with federal court procedures. Additionally, federal court has "original jurisdiction" over some types of claims, simply because the claims are based on an alleged violation of federal law.
For these reason, most airplane cases wind up in federal court. There certainly can be scenarios where local courts are the appropriate venue, but federal court is usually the place where these cases are resolved.
Your Lawyer Must Understand Several Areas of Injury Law
- General Personal Injury Law
When someone's negligence causes you an injury, you're allowed to file a lawsuit against them and ask for compensation for your damages. The burden is on you, the plaintiff, to establish and prove the defendant's negligence. To read more about this area of the law, click the link below.
- Explaining the Basics - Personal Injury Law
- Wrongful Death Law
All wrongful death law is based on the same personal injury law as above, but the lawsuit is instead brought by the representatives of the deceased person's estate. Usually, this is a close family member.
- Explaining the Basics - Texas Wrongful Death Law
- Products Liability Law
Products liability law is essentially the government's way of holding manufacturers liable for the products they create. It's a combination of contract law and injury law by which a manufacturer of a product is obligated to create/sell the safest products possible while using the best design and technology feasible to them at the time. It also applies to sellers and advertisers.It's worth noting that the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 puts a restriction on products liability lawsuits by saying that no "small" plane over the age of 18 years can be named in a products liability lawsuit. A "small" plane is one that carries fewer than 20 passengers. Essentially, the plane's manufacturer is only liable for their product for the first 18 years of its life. After that, all products liability claims are barred.
- Explaining the GARA and how it limits your claim
- Explaining the Basics - Products Liability Law
In order for a lawyer to really understand plane accidents, he must:
- Understand the inner workings of the FFA and their regulations
- Be familiar with the NTSB protocol for investigation
- Know how to investigate the accident himself without tainting the evidence
- Be licensed in and experienced with federal court
- Understand personal injury law
- Understand wrongful death law
- Understand products liability law
While most conventional personal injury cases will feature elements from only from one or two major areas of legal practice, airplane and aviation accident cases warrant representation from a lawyer who is familiar with many dissimilar bodies of law.
Applying the Law
Once your lawyer completes the investigation, files suit in the appropriate court, and processes the information assessed by the NTSB, then the real work begins. This is the part where he applies the law to accomplish results for you through a process called litigation.
The Litigation Process
Most of us are familiar with courtroom drama shows like "Law & Order." The legal proceedings in that show can be summed into one word: litigation. If you recall from earlier in this article, litigation includes gathering evidence and using expert witnesses. The litigation process is nothing if not long and tedious.
Let's apply the law to what we've established already. The best way to explain how these cases work is with a hypothetical. Consider the following example:
John is killed when a commercial airliner crashes in an accident. This happens in Texas, but the airline is based out of New York. Suppose our law firm is hired; we would represent the wife and children of John, since they are the representatives of his estate. We investigate thoroughly and learn from the NTSB that the accident was caused by pilot error and that he was actually under the influence of alcohol. Upon learning this, we promptly hire a toxicologist to prove how much alcohol was in the pilot's system and to illustrate how badly his senses and reaction times were impaired.
The next step is to file suit against the airline, which is done in federal court, and go through the process of discovery (the exchange of documents, under authority of the court, so that we can peer into the inner workings of the airline). Initially, we claim that the airline is liable for the pilot's negligence under a theory of vicarious liability. That means that because the pilot is employed by the airline, they are automatically responsible for him by extension.
When we obtain the records we asked for through discovery, and we learn more about the training programs and safety programs of the airline company. Additionally, we get his employment file, wherein we discover that the pilot had numerous alcohol-related reprimands in the past, implying that the airline knew about his drinking. Further, suppose we find record of a past incident: while this pilot was taxiing on the tarmac and the plane bumped into a luggage cart. Nobody was injured, but the pilot was suspected of being under the influence - though no testing was performed to confirm nor deny.
Now, there's suddenly a different claim on our hands and our strategy shifts. Rather than ask the jury to find the airline vicariously liable for John's death, we can now amend our pleadings and sue the airline on the basis that they themselves were liable for failing to supervise and discipline their employee. We can also claim that they were guilty of negligent hiring.
As the case moves forward, the airline argues that John's family did not have a close relationship with him. To prove that John was not such a nice guy, they dig up some "dirt" on John, like an old arrest record from his college days, and they use that to try and smear him. To fight back, we have that so-called "evidence" excluded from trial, then mediate the case wherein the airline company agrees to settle. At that point, the only question is whether or not our clients, John's wife and children, are willing to accept. That's something that's up to them to decide, not the attorney representing them. We advise them, but it's their call.
Do you see the different elements of our discussion being worked into John's family's hypothetical lawsuit? The first step is to file the case in federal court. After going through the investigative process, we used an expert witness to further prove that the accident was influenced by alcohol. That's something where a jury isn't just going to take our word for it as attorneys, they need the opinion of a qualified professional.
The lawsuit that we filed in that example have been a wrongful death claim, which is a negligence-based argument predicated upon personal injury law. What if we had discovered the accident was caused by a malfunctioning part on the plane? If that had been the case, we would have filed a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the plane.
Suing a Privately-Owned Plane vs. Suing a Commercially-Owned Plane
The biggest difference in a lawsuit against a smaller, privately-owned plane and a commercial plane is the strategy you'll use. In one, you'll want to be aggressive in your approach and in the other, more frugal.
Since the smaller, privately-owned plane is probably going to be owned by a regular person (not a business), launching a full-flown investigation and subpoenaing the NTSB probably isn't necessary because the owner of the plane won't be able to cover all the damages the crash caused. An inexperienced attorney will make the mistake of going in with guns blazing, as it were, and not consider a more frugal approach.
On the other hand, a commercially-owned plane is going to be backed by a company that has a vested interest in their property and investment. In that situation, all bets are off and the best approach is to be as aggressive as possible. These companies have the funds to pay for their mistake, but that also means they have the funds to protects themselves from lawsuits.
Demanding Compensation in an Aviation Accident Case
Compensation and payment are only part of filing a lawsuit, the other part is making sure that the guilty parties are held accountable for their actions. This sends a message to other airline carriers and pilots, showing that there are consequences for not being careful.
Types of Damages & Compensation
Recall that "damages" simply refers to losses suffered in an accident. Here is a list of some common damages that result in compensation via a lawsuit. If a court says you can pursue compensation for a damage, that makes it a "compensatory damage."
- Personal Injury Damages:
- Loss of income
- Medical expenses
- Future Expenses
- Pain & suffering
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Mental anguish
- Wrongful Death Damages:
- Loss of inheritance
- Loss of earning capacity
- Punitive damages
- Mental anguish
- Loss of society
- Loss of spousal services
As you can see, some of these are more concrete and obvious than others. It's easy to prove to a jury how much a physical injury is worth, because you simply need to have a hospital bill or a doctor's note. But these more abstract damages, like mental anguish, are harder to prove. This ties into our last section, which is about choosing the right attorney.
Don't Settle For an Average Attorney
If we've done one thing by writing this article, we hope that it's showing an aviation accident case isn't simply a stroll in the park. On the contrary, it's a long-term process that will take a lot of time, resources, and special knowledge of the law. If you can find an attorney who's got a comprehensive knowledge of personal injury law, wrongful death law, products liability law, and federal court experience, then that's the one you should hire for your case. We've never shied away from handling these kinds of cases, and we hope our accident guide here is evidence to as much. Simply put, we don't scare easily.
Don't settle for an attorney who just does two or three of those things well, because the value of your case will reflect it. This isn't a case where you can file a claim and sit back until your check comes in the mail, it takes a lot of hard work. Lots of attorneys will tell you that they handle hundreds of cases per year, but that's not something to be proud of because it shows they don't put any special emphasis on the cases that need it.
Again, we're more than happy to talk on the phone or by email and answer any questions you might have. The way we see it, this kind of specialized knowledge doesn't do anyone any good if it's kept a secret. It's our goal to educate you in the area of aviation lawsuits and make sure you understand what you're up against.