Although the recent hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181 to Cyprus by a man wearing a fake explosive belt ended peacefully with no injuries, previous hijack victims have not always been so lucky. Surviving victims of hijackings and other lapses of airline security can file lawsuits seeking compensation for their losses. Even if they don’t survive, their survivors can file wrongful death claims. Although not all airline incident claims are successful, seven-figure damages are awarded in some instances.
Recovering for Emotional Distress
The terror endured by hijacking victims, especially when it appears that the plane is about to crash, is some of the most intense emotional distress imaginable. Unfortunately, however, it is all but impossible to recover damages for emotional distress caused by an airline incident, including a hijacking, unless it is accompanied by a tangible physical injury. In many cases, however, airlines will voluntarily compensate victims with a modest sum for public relations purposes.
Recovering for Wrongful Death
Because of the frequently lethal nature of aircraft hijackings and similar security breaches, wrongful death claims are one of the most common means of seeking redress. A wrongful death claim can be filed by certain close relatives of the victim or by the administrator of the victim’s probate estate (depending on the jurisdiction).
Negligence: The easiest way to prove negligence when an air incident results from a hijacking or other criminal behavior is to show that the airline violated a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulation, and that the violation was a cause of the incident (failure to properly screen passengers, for example). Even without a violation of an FAA regulation, it is still possible to prove negligence, although it is more difficult. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates most U.S. airline incidents, and its findings can be used as evidence in court.
No-fault liability: If the incident occurred on an international flight, you may be eligible for compensation under the Montreal Convention. Under the Montreal Convention you do not have to prove that the airline was at fault to recover up to a certain benchmark amount (currently around $170,000). If you wish to recover more than the benchmark amount, however, you will have to prove negligence or intentional misconduct. Wrongful death cases are normally worth far more than $170,000.
Intentional Misconduct: On some occasions, flights have gone down due to deliberate pilot misconduct – in other words, the murder-suicide of entire planeloads of people. EgyptAir Flight 990 apparently met this fate in October 1999 when it crashed in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, killing all 217 aboard (the NTSB report was inconclusive on the pilot’s motivation). More recently, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in France, killing 150 when the First Officer commandeered the flight.
In cases of intentional employee misconduct occur, the airline is legally liable for the acts of its employees, and full compensatory damages should be available. In some cases punitive damages may also be available, and these damages may exceed compensatory damages by a wide margin.
Damages: In a wrongful death lawsuit, you can recover several different types of damages (depending on the jurisdiction). You may be able to recover for loss of future financial support, funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses, the pain and suffering experienced by the victim prior to death, your own grief, loss of companionship and guidance, and other items.
Recovering for Personal Injury
A victim who was injured in an airline incident but did not die may sue on his own behalf for medical expenses, lost earnings, pain and suffering, mental anguish and other economic and non-economic losses traceable to the incident.
Airline incident lawsuits and settlement negotiations are typically complex, and they normally require the services of an experienced aviation lawyer to maximize results.
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