Injuries sometimes do occur to airline travelers. Some of these injuries are fatal. Some occur because of airplane or airplane related physical defects. An airplane wing falling off, or an engine failing are examples. Some injuries occur because people are negligent. Pilot errors, or even a steward failing to secure an overhead bin can be responsible for injuries.
To fly or not to fly
Many people will not get onto an airplane for fear of the worst, a crash ending in death. Wilbur and Orville Wright (credited with inventing the first airplane in 1903) probably did not think about crashes resulting in injury and death claims.
Similarly, Karl Benz of Germany, credited with inventing the first automobile in 1886, also probably did not think about crashes resulting in injury or death claims.
Interestingly, in 1896, there were only four cars registered in the United States. Two of them were involved in an accident, with each other, in St. Louis.
Statistics on accidents and crashes for both airplanes and automobiles do not account for the fear of some about not getting onto an airplane. It is the horror of the imagination that stops people from boarding. Estimates place the number of annual deaths involving transportation vehicles (cars, trucks, SUVs, trains, buses, motorcycles, bicycles) over 40,000. Airplane fatalities number, on average each year, under 600.
The law for injury claims
Negligence laws govern most injury claims, including airplane related injuries. Negligence requires a showing that something was done, or not done (omission) improperly, that there was a duty on the part of the wrongdoer, and that there was a breach, or failure, of that duty. Then the injury must be caused by the breach of the duty.
Most people understand those requirements, even if they are not able to fully detail them, in an automobile collision setting. Drivers must drive properly. Drivers owe a duty to others on the roadway. A driver failing to drive properly, for example, not stopping behind other cars stopped at a red light, breaches the duty to stop, and in not stopping does something wrong.
There have been a great many lawsuits filed for victims of airplane crashes and other disasters. The issue in those lawsuits is (more often than not) an effort to prove responsibility for the bad result, the crash, the fire, or whatever the cause was that resulted in deaths or injuries to crew and passengers.
Aviation lawsuits are complex. They can involve many potential theories of responsibility, or liability, under state, federal and international law. There are potentially many different defendants to identify, and potentially more than one court in which a trial may take place.
Other injuries occur on airplanes, not because of crashes or fires. A suitcase falling out of an overhead bin, or even a food cart rolling into or over someone, are examples. According to one estimate, approximately 4,500 passengers are injured each year from falling baggage.
When physical defects cause plane problems and injuries, it is possible that a products liability claim could be brought.
Not so negligent
Some people are injured intentionally by airline personnel, or by police acting at the request of airline crews. In April of this year Dr. David Dao was forcibly dragged off of a United Airlines flight when he refused to voluntarily give up his seat.
Dr. Dao’s case and others in the past present claims for assault and battery.
Of note, while not an “injury,” airlines are allowed to overbook, and do so in anticipation of no-shows. If passengers are asked to volunteer for another flight, and no one volunteers, airlines can select passengers for removal based on factors such as check-in time or the cost of a ticket.
Standard of care
Turning then to injuries, the Federal Aviation Act sets the standard for conduct and the required care with which airlines must comply. A car driver must exercise ordinary care. Airlines have a higher standard. An airline must exercise vigilance in every aspect of its operations, maintenance, inspection of the plane, loading and boarding of the plane.
An airline is not, and should not be required to be an absolute guarantor of the safety of all of its passengers all of the time. An airline however is required to do all that is reasonable, and more, to prevent injuries from happening.
In order to find that an airline is responsible for an injury, there must be a showing that the airline was at fault. Tripping on the way to the airplane’s restroom may or may not result in the airline being responsible.
The airline pilot is often a defendant in accident claim matters. He or she is the sole authority responsible for the safe operation of the plane, and he or she is required to familiarize him or herself with all available information regarding the airplane’s condition, the flight, and even the weather conditions that will present during the flight.
Airline ground personnel are also responsible. They must properly inspect the plane and assure it is in safe working condition. Of interesting note, an airline cannot rely on even a recent government inspection.
The manufacturer, seller or repairer of a plane, or its equipment, may also be responsible for passenger injuries if there are defects that cause malfunctions.
Air traffic controllers owe a duty to passengers to assure safe airplane takeoffs and landings, and to prevent in air airplane-to-airplane crashes. Note that controllers are not responsible for Donald Duck or Tweety flying into airplane engines.
An injured party may recover compensation, or damages, in several “categories” from an airplane incident. These include past and future medical bills, lost wages and lost earning capacity, past and future disruption of life, including pain, suffering, emotional distress and more, and in certain cases, punitive damages. Each jurisdiction will have rules about what damages are recoverable.
Airline Rankings, Ratings
Martin Rivers, writing in Forbes in 2016, argues that airline safety ratings, and rankings, are meaningless. He says the law of averages does not come into force with limited air crash data, that in order to properly assess one airline or another, each airline would have to show a large enough “pool” of data to properly assess its track record, and that no airline can do that.
Rivers interviewed Paul Hayes, the safety and insurance director at Ascend, an aviation consultancy organization, who agreed with River’s assessment.
Hayes: Joe Public wants to be told that he’s flying on the safest airline in the world, but realistically no one can give you that comfort. It’s a case of lies, damned lies and statistics. The problem is that when you look at individual carriers, no airline in the world is big enough to suffer loss of average. If you had hundreds of millions of flights and thousands of accidents, then you could do very robust statistics. But accidents are so incredibly rare that even huge airlines like Delta can’t suffer one incident in five years and still be average.
Travelers should know:
Usually the skies are friendly (United Airlines)
The sky may or may not be the best place on earth (Air France)
Some things may or may not be special in the air (American Airlines)
You are free to move about the country (Southwest Airlines)
They do love to fly, and mostly it shows (Delta Airlines)