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When Can an Airline be Held Liable for an Aviation Accident?

a plane at a jet bridge

Commercial air travel is statistically one of the safest modes of transportation. However, when an airline accident does happen, the results can be catastrophic.

Commercial airline accidents vary in severity and are not limited to crashes alone – they can happen while taxiing to the runway, during takeoff, mid-flight, landing, and on the way to the arrival gate. Passengers can even be injured embarking and disembarking the aircraft. Regardless of how they happen, if negligence either caused or contributed to the accident, the airline may be held liable. Like any other corporation, airlines act through their employees; so, negligence on the part of an employee makes the airline responsible for the consequences.

Liability in a Commercial Airline Accident

Airlines in the United States are governed by the rules and regulations enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration, other federal laws, and often the laws of the states where the accident happens. They are also “common carriers,” which means an airline owes a heightened duty of care to its passengers. As such, airlines can be held legally responsible for any breach of the required standard of care that causes injuries or death.

Liability in commercial aviation accidents often extends beyond the airline alone. For example, if pilot error and a mechanical failure were both factors in an aviation accident, the airline, the aircraft manufacturer, and potentially the manufacturer of a defective part or component, and even a different company that performed faulty maintenance, may be held liable in a lawsuit.

It is important to remember that claims for damages in an aviation accident lawsuit are not limited to physical injuries or death. If negligence caused a plane to make a harrowing emergency landing, or an engine exploded in flight, passengers may be able to pursue legal action against the airline for severe emotional distress caused by the event, and could recover any future lost wages incurred as a result.

If an accident is caused by a defective part, whether the defect is the product of a manufacturing error or of a faulty design, the airline, in addition to the manufacturer of the part, can be held liable in a product liability action. This type of case does not require the injured party or the family of loved ones to prove negligence. In a product liability case, an injured passenger or the family of survivors need only prove that the part was defective and that the defect caused the accident; if the case involves a design defect, most states permit recovery if the part did not perform as safely as was expected or if the risk inherent in the design outweighed its utility.

The above is but a summary of applicable laws that can come into play when one seeks to hold an airline responsible for injuries or death. If one believes that there was an airline incident or crash that resulted in injury or death, it is always best to consult with an experienced aviation accident lawyer.

Investigating an Airline Accident

Determining the responsible party (or parties) in a commercial aviation accident starts with a thorough, painstaking investigation. The victims and their families deserve to know what caused the accident, and who is responsible. They also have the right to pursue legal action against any responsible party, even if they are only partially at fault for the accident.

Hiring an experienced airline accident attorney ensures that no stone is left unturned when investigating the cause (or causes) of an accident. The aviation attorneys at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman have seen many situations in which government investigators solely blamed the pilots for an accident when a multitude of factors were involved. Determining all at-fault parties ensures that the victims and their families have the opportunity to pursue justice and maximum compensation against all of those responsible.

How Common Are Commercial Airline Accidents?

Airline accidents have become less common over the years. The U.S. has not had a fatal airline crash on American soil since 2009, although there was one fatality in 2018 when Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 experienced an in-flight engine explosion that killed one passenger; the airplane was safely landed, however.

A study recently conducted by a Dutch aviation consulting firm found that commercial airliners were involved in 40 total accidents in 2020. Of those, five were fatal, resulting in 299 deaths. According to the data, fatal accidents happen roughly once out of every five million flights.

In 2019, commercial airliners were involved in 86 total accidents. Eight of the accidents were fatal and resulted in 257 deaths.

According to a study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it has never been safer to fly on commercial airlines. The study found that between 2008 and 2017, airline passenger fatalities fell compared to the previous decade when measured by individual passenger boardings. Additionally, the data below shows how much safer air travel has become since the 1960s:

  • 2008-2017: 1 death per 7.9 million passenger boardings
  • 1998-2007: 1 death per 2.7 million passenger boardings
  • 1988-1997: 1 death per 1.3 million passenger boardings
  • 1978-1987: 1 death per 750,000 passenger boardings
  • 1968-1977: 1 death per 350,000 passenger boardings

Despite the excellent downward trend in fatal airline accidents, when airplanes do crash, passengers and crew may suffer serious physical and mental injuries, including but not limited to:

Given the increased safety of air travel, and the potential consequences that may result when a trip does go awry, how exactly can these accidents still happen?

When Do Airline Accidents Happen?

Most commercial aviation accidents happen during takeoff, climb, approach, and landing.

When the plane is closer to the ground, pilots have less time to react to any problems that arise. Takeoff and the initial climb accounts for roughly 2% of an entire flight. However, 14% of crashes occur during this stage of flight. Some recent crashes occurring at this stage in flight include the Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 crash, the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash, and the Lion Air Flight 610 crash.

While an airliner typically cruises for more than half of a commercial flight, this stage of flight only accounts for roughly 11% of fatal accidents.

A commercial flight’s descent and landing accounts for roughly 4% of a flight, but nearly half of all fatal airline accidents happen during this stage.

Nevertheless, commercial aviation accidents can happen any time during travel. Our airline attorneys have even seen cases involving injuries sustained while embarking or disembarking. If the airline is negligent during this phase of flight, legal action may be possible.

What Causes Commercial Airline Accidents?

The most common causes of commercial airline accidents include:

  • Negligent maintenance: An aircraft must be serviced frequently and properly in order to keep all its moving parts working as intended. There are strict rules requiring regular inspections and maintenance of airplanes and their parts; some parts must be replaced at stated intervals. Unfortunately, airlines occasionally outsource maintenance to third parties in the United States and abroad rather than having the airline’s own technicians work on their fleet. Airlines do this to lower their maintenance costs, and, in so doing, can risk passenger safety.
  • Design or manufacturing defects: Every time a plane takes off and lands, more stress is put on the aircraft’s moving parts, such as the wings, engines, rudder, landing gear, and much more. It is vital that each and every part of an aircraft functions properly; one small defect can bring down an entire plane.
  • Flight crew negligence: We depend on pilots and flight attendants to keep us safe in the air. Unfortunately, however, some pilots forget or skip important safety procedures, exercise poor judgment, or fail to perform their duties according to their training, and some flight attendants fail to complete their duties, any one of which can affect the safety of passengers.
  • Corporate negligence: Aviation accidents have happened after airlines fail to carry out required inspections of their fleets, train or supervise their maintenance or piloting crews properly, encourage pilots to take unnecessary risks to avoid delays and increase revenue, for instance. Some airlines have implemented cost-cutting measures that can jeopardize aircraft integrity and passenger safety.

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman | Airline Accident Attorneys

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman is one of the most experienced aviation accident law firms in the world. Our team has a track record of success against airlines and aircraft manufacturers going back nearly half a century.

Some of our top airline accident case results include:

  • $17.5 million settlement for the death of a passenger in a major US plane crash
  • $14 million settlement for the death of a passenger in a major US plane crash
  • $10 million settlement for the death of a passenger in a major foreign plane crash

If you have been injured in a commercial aviation accident of any kind, do not assume the airline is immune from prosecution. Our team at Wisner Baum is well-versed in airline accident cases. We can protect your legal rights and pursue justice and compensation on your behalf. Call (855) 948-5098 for a free consultation.


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