The legal claims that may or may not be available to passengers injured on airplanes can be complex and will depend on who and/or what caused the injury. If a passenger is injured as a result of the negligence, carelessness, or inattention of an airline employee, there is likely a claim for negligence against the airline. This is true regardless of whether that employee was the pilot, cleaning crew, or flight attendant. Generally, a plaintiff, or victim, must prove three things:
That the law required the defendant to exercise "reasonable" or "ordinary" care to prevent people from being hurt.
That the defendant failed to exercise such reasonable care.
That failure was the cause of the plaintiff's injury.
Airlines, however, are part of a category referred to in legal terms as "common carriers." A common carrier is a company that transports members of the public for a fee. A company designated as a common carrier owes a "heightened duty of care" to prevent members of the public from being hurt. A heightened duty of care means that the company and its employees must act with a higher degree of care. In other words, they have to go above and beyond what a normal person would do to safeguard against injury. The standard for common carriers applies to employees of the airline, as well, and is applicable whether passengers are boarding the plane, the airplane is in flight, or passengers are disembarking the aircraft.
POSSIBLE NEGLIGENT ACTIONS
There are various ways that airlines and their employees can be negligent. They can be negligent by actively doing something they should not do, such as leaving a cart in the way and causing a passenger to trip and fall. This can also be caused by failing to do something that they should have done, like latching an overhead bin properly so that it does not open mid-flight, causing luggage to fall on a passenger. Airlines can also be negligent if they fail to adequately train their staff, have policies that do not properly protect their passengers, or fail to warn passengers of potential hazards.
Airlines are not, however, responsible for aviation accidents that happen due to "acts of God." For example, unpredictable weather and turbulence are good examples of these acts. Pilots and airlines cannot always anticipate turbulence. If the airline and flight attendants were adequately protecting passengers and were vigilant and a passenger is injured from turbulence anyway, the airline would not be held responsible for the passenger's injury.
That being said, if the pilots were able to foresee the turbulence (as they often can), but did not warn the passengers to fasten their seat belts or take other precautions to protect themselves from injury, the airline may be deemed to be negligent and therefore liable for any resulting injuries. In addition, if the pilot should have been able to predict the turbulence, but did not do so because of inattention, the airline could be liable for passenger injuries caused by the turbulence.
CAN LIABILITY REST WITH FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION?
Airlines and their employees are not the only ones who may be held liable for passenger injuries. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for providing safe air navigation/air traffic control services to 30.2 million square miles.
If an FAA employee's in attention or lack of vigilance causes injuries to passenger (in a runway crash, for example), the injured passenger may be able to make a claim FAA for negligence. Because the FAA is a federal agency, there are special rules and procedures that must be followed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. A Richmond personal injury attorney experienced in lawsuits against the federal government can advise you whether or not you may have a claim.
There are also times when airplane parts or equipment are defective and lead to injuries. If a passenger is injured as a result, there may be a product liability claim. For example, if a design defect results in a cart coming loose mid-flight, a passenger injured by the cart could have a claim against the airplane or cart manufacturers.
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