Not all aircraft injuries are caused by crashes or mechanical malfunctions — injuries caused by air turbulence represent a real danger that rarely receives significant press coverage. Although passengers are rarely killed by air turbulence, serious injuries do occur on a regular basis. Whether or not you can maintain an air turbulence injury lawsuit or successfully negotiate an out-of-court settlement depends on the facts of your case.
Common Air Turbulence Injuries
Some of the most common causes of air turbulence injuries include:
- Slipping and falling in the aisle
- Being hit by luggage falling from an overhead bin
- Being hit by a rolling food cart
- Being thrown from your seat
Any of these events can support a personal injury lawsuit, as long as they result in some kind of tangible physical injury.
The rules for airliner liability are different depending on whether the flight in question was a domestic flight or an international flight.
Domestic flights: On U.S. domestic flights, airliners are subject to liability to passengers based on a “common carrier” standard. Under the common carrier standard, the airliner (including all of its employees) must exercise a high duty of care to prevent injuries to passengers. Failure to meet this standard can subject the airliner to personal injury liability.
Turbulence is not always predictable, and an airliner might be able to avoid liability by proving that it was an “act of God”, so to speak – an occurrence that the airliner could neither have predicted nor avoided. In many cases, however, turbulence is a predictable occurrence and will not relieve the airliner of liability. An airliner might also be able to avoid or reduce its liability by claiming that you were partly or fully at fault – by leaving your seat when the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign was lit, for example.
International flights: Airliner liability for passenger injuries on international flights is governed by the Montreal Convention (an international treaty). Under the Montreal Convention, airliners are strictly liable for damages of up to 113,100 in Special Drawing Rights (SDR), equivalent to more than U.S $150,000. Strict liability means that you don’t have to show that the airline did anything wrong to win a lawsuit. Claims exceeding 113,100 SDR require you to establish liability in the same way you would for a domestic flight – by proving that the airline was negligent by failing to meet the common “carrier standard” of care.
Other Potential Defendants
Depending on the circumstances, the airliner might not be the only possible defendant in the event of an air turbulence injury. The manufacturer or designer of a latch on an overhead bin might be held liable, for example, if the plaintiff was injured by falling luggage after the latch malfunctioned.
The Federal Aviation Administration is unlikely to conduct a serious investigation of an air turbulence incident unless several serious injuries resulted. If it does, however, you should be able to get your hands on a copy of the investigation report and use it against the airline in court if it supports your claims.
Special Case: Emotional Distress
Normally, you cannot win a personal injury lawsuit over emotional distress unless the defendant deliberately caused your distress (if you did suffer physical injury, however, you can claim additional damages for the resulting emotional distress). Nevertheless, precedent does exist for holding an airliner liable for purely emotional damages. In 1999, a Federal District Court in New York City awarded 13 plaintiffs a grand total of $2 million for emotional distress caused by air turbulence, after the plaintiffs proved that the airline negligently failed to warn the passengers of the turbulence.
Winning a personal injury lawsuit over an air turbulence incident can be difficult, especially if the defendant is a major airline with a team of high-priced lawyers on its payroll. For this reason, you should consider retaining the services of a top-notch aviation attorney before filing your lawsuit.