Traveling by air is not only quicker than by road or rail, but it is also the safest. While airplane accidents are rare, when they occur, they result in catastrophic injuries and, quite often, death. Also, smaller airplanes are more prone to crashes compared to large or commercial planes. Airplane accidents lawsuits are complicated.  Where the accident happens is crucial, but where you file your case has a significant impact on the amount of compensation you receive for your injuries. If you sustain injuries from an airplane accident involving a domestic airline, you can bring a lawsuit in a U.S. court. If the plane crash is outside the U.S., you can take legal action under international agreements.

After an accident, the airline and their insurance companies will try to convince you to sign agreements and settle claims quickly. They have no concern for your best interests. Instead, they want to avoid lawsuits and protect their profits and reputation. You should not agree to settle before you consult a Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney.  We believe that the party responsible for the accident should compensate you adequately, especially if you sustain a catastrophic injury. We will negotiate with the insurer to obtain fair compensation and protect your rights. If necessary, we will petition the court to award the highest possible settlement for your damages.

Defining Catastrophic Injuries

Airplane accidents mostly injure pilots and passengers, but sometimes there are other victims. You can sustain injuries from an airplane accident if you are an airline worker, a spectator at an airshow, or when your regular activities put you close to a crashing airplane. Whether you were inside or outside the plane, you are likely to sustain severe, life-altering injuries.

A catastrophic injury is one that causes you long-lasting or permanent pain or loss of function or the use of an organ or a limb. Sometimes, the injuries may not appear severe immediately after the accident, but it may cause significant problems months or years later. Catastrophic injuries include:

  • Traumatic and other brain injuries that cause physical disability, permanent cognitive impairment, or mood imbalance
  • Amputation and other loss of the use of a limb
  • Spinal cord injury and paralysis
  • Loss of hearing or vision
  • Scarring and disfigurement
  • Organ damage

Complex Legal Issues in Airplane Accidents

Claims in airplane accidents are complex because they involve various state and federal regulations, making it harder for you to receive compensation. For example, the Montreal Convention of 1999 introduced a liability system that would benefit victims and reduce their litigation time. In the arrangement, proving the carrier’s willful neglect is not a prerequisite to receiving compensation. Instead, the airline is strictly liable for a maximum of $100,000 in damages.

Apart from carriers, many other entities may also be liable for the accident. Usually, airplane accident claims involve sharing fault among several parties, which may get you a higher compensation. Additionally, airplane accident litigation relies on extensive investigations and oversight from different agencies. Therefore, it requires comprehensive knowledge of the relevant state and federal laws.

  • The FAA enforces aviation laws. The agency also oversees the manufacturing, operation, and maintenance of all types of aircraft in the U.S.
  • The NTSB is in charge of investigating all airplane accidents and recommending changes in aircraft safety procedures.
  • State laws may also apply to airplane accidents.

California’s Negligence Laws

California uses a “comparative negligence” system when determining personal injury claims. In this system, you can seek damages from the defendant, even if you have a share of fault. You are entitled to recover the percentage of your loss for which the defendant is liable, including cases in which your share of responsibility is more than 50%. For example, the jury establishes that you are 70% at fault in a situation where the court determines your damages are $1,000,000. You are entitled to recover $300,000 (30%) from the defendant. Allocating the percentage share of fault is at the jury’s discretion. Therefore, it is prudent to have a personal injury attorney with experience in catastrophic injury lawsuits.

Under California’s laws, any company or airline that charges you to travel in its plane is a common carrier. Therefore, it owes you a duty of diligence and utmost care for your safety. This duty is higher than the standard for ordinary negligence, and it applies throughout your journey, including boarding and disembarking from the plane. If you are a non-paying passenger in a flight for which you would ordinarily pay a fee, the private company or airline owes you a duty of due diligence and ordinary care, even if it may not owe you a duty of utmost care.

The duty of utmost care also applies to the maintenance and operation of the airplane. Even when an independent contractor maintains the airplanes on behalf of the airline, the task of aircraft maintenance is not delegable. The airline cannot avoid the responsibility for airplane maintenance by hiring an external contractor. Therefore, the airline is still responsible for the contractor’s negligence.

Proving Your Case in an Airplane Accident Claim

Obtaining actual evidence from an airplane accident scene is often extraordinarily difficult. Usually, there is no survivor to give an account of the accident, and the airplane is so wrecked that FAA investigators find it challenging to identify the possible cause of the accident. Fortunately, there is "res ipsa loquitur," a legal theory that can help you win your case. It protects you when the exact cause of the airplane crash is extremely difficult or impossible to establish.

The principle of "res ipsa loquitur" presumes negligence if your case meets the following conditions:

  1. That type of accident typically does not occur without someone’s negligence
  2. The instrumentality or agency that caused the injury or accident is within the exclusive control of the defendant
  3. The injury or accident was not as a result of your voluntary contribution or action

Therefore, there is a presumption of negligence in almost all airplane cases except in those filed by pilots or co-pilots. If you are a pilot or flight attendant, you can claim damages if another party, except the pilot or their employer, is at fault. Though you cannot sue your employer, you can file a case against the supplier or manufacturer of the airplane if you can prove their negligence.

In some cases, establishing a violation of a regulation or statute can help you prove your case. Such violations create a presumption of negligence and shift the burden of proof. The defendant has to prove that they were not negligent. However, violating a statute does not result in a presumption of negligence where the purpose of that rule was not to safeguard everyone from the type of injury you suffered. 

Determining Liability

When an airplane accident occurs, sometimes nobody is at fault, for example, if the accident was a result of weather conditions. However, in most cases, multiple parties are likely to be liable for the crash. An exhaustive investigation is necessary to determine the precise cause of the crash and, by extension, the at-fault party. The leading causes of airplane accidents are:

  • Weather
  • Pilot error or ineptitude
  • Ground handling issues and air traffic controller errors
  • Mechanical malfunction
  • Manufacturing or design defects
  • Lax protocol and safety rules
  • Sabotage by terrorists

Although it is difficult to determine the cause of an airplane accident, it is critical because the potential parties to a lawsuit are many. They include:

  • The airport
  • The airline
  • The pilot
  • Air traffic control officers
  • The airplane’s manufacturer
  • The maintenance company

The cause notwithstanding, you are entitled to damages for your financial, physical, and emotional injuries. The judge or jury will determine responsibility and distribute fault among all the responsible parties. If the defendant was 100% at fault, the court could award you 100% of your damages.

However, the defendant may also claim that your negligence contributed to the accident. To succeed in the claim, they must prove both of these statements:

  • That you were negligent
  • That your negligence played a significant role in causing your injuries.

If the court agrees, your damages will be reduced by the percentage of your responsibility. The fault allocated to all parties must total to 100%.

The jury will make an independent finding of your total damage. Your attorney can also negotiate a  settlement outside of the court on your behalf. The amount of damages does not depend on your percentage of responsibility. After the court determines your total losses, each defendant will then owe you an amount equal to their percentage of fault.

The Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is the period within which you must file your lawsuit. If you do not bring your case within that time, you will lose your right to recover damages. Statutes of limitations exist for fundamental fairness. Over time, witnesses relocate, memories fade, and evidence disappears. Statutes of limitation encourage you to file your case diligently and protect defendants from the uncertainty of possible claims for accidents that occurred in the past.

Generally, the statute of limitations in a California personal injury lawsuit is two years. It starts running when you know or reasonably should have known about the injury. In some injuries like traumatic brain injury where the damage occurs over time, and you only discover it later, the statute of limitations starts running from the time you find out about the injury. However, you must file claims against government agencies or their employees within six months after your injury.

What to do if You Sustain Injuries in an Airplane Accident

Airplane accident scenes are usually chaotic, and even trained professionals often fail to get things right immediately after the crash. Your safety should be a priority. It would be best if you also got medical treatment as soon as possible. Once a medical professional clears you, it is critical to gather relevant information in preparation for your claim. You should:

  • Write down all the information you can recall concerning the accident
  • Take pictures or videos of your injuries and of the scene or ask someone to do it for you
  • Keep a diary and documentation of your condition after the accident and all the medical treatment you receive
  • Collect the contact information of fellow victims and witnesses if any
  • Ensure you do not speak with any insurance companies or airline attorneys before you speak to your lawyer.

Damages Recoverable

Catastrophic injuries are likely to result in unanticipated expenses for the rest of your life. Therefore, you need a settlement that can cover all your costs. If you suffer a catastrophic injury due to an airplane accident, you may receive compensation for three categories of damages:

  • Economic Damages

    This type of damage is the dollar value of all expenses you have incurred or expect to suffer due to the injury.  They include:

    • Medical costs, both current and future anticipated expenditures, including all tests, MRIs, X-rays, medications, surgeries, and post-op treatment.
    • Occupational or physical therapy
    • Psychological therapy
    • Long-term or short-term care
    • Lost income
    • Loss of earning capacity
    • Out-of-pocket expenses such as legal fees, hotel stays, and transportation costs

    The court uses the testimony of doctors and other healthcare professionals to determine medical expenses. Often, an industry expert or an economist will ascertain the loss of future wages.

  • Non-economic Damages

    These are damages that do not have a definite monetary value. They include:

    • Pain and suffering, both past and future
    • Loss of enjoyment of life
    • Disfigurement
    • A life care plan

    Pain and suffering, including emotional distress, is usually the most significant of all your damages. No expert can value, and no formula can accurately determine your pain and suffering. It varies from one case to the other depending on where you file your claim, the severity of the accident, and how well you present your issues.

  • Punitive Damages

    The court usually awards these damages as a penalty to the defendant to deter them from repeating the actions that caused the accident. Typically, you will only receive punitive damages in a case against a large corporation like an airline. However, if the defendant’s conduct was exceptionally atrocious, malicious, or intentional, the court could award you punitive damages against an individual or a small company.

The Montreal Convention and Airline Liability Limitations

The Montreal Convention of 1999 is a multilateral agreement that establishes the duties and liabilities of airlines in case of injuries on international flights. The convention was an improvement of the 1929 Warsaw Convention and the 1955 Hague Protocol. In the Warsaw Convention treaty of 1929, air carriers that engage in international flights are liable for injuries you sustain as a passenger from an accident that occurs while onboard, entering, or exiting the plane.

The Montreal Convention serves as a single, universal protocol that governs the liability of airlines around the world. It contains significant limitations on damages and liability for airlines on international flights. These limitations affect your ability to claim compensation.

  1. Airlines who signed to the Montreal Agreement assumed absolute liability for injuries you sustain on international flights with a stop or point of departure in the U.S. Although accepting “absolute liability” would waive potential airline defenses, it caps your total damage recovery at $75,000.
  1. The $75,000 limit only applies to airlines on international flights and only those flights “that have a stop or point of departure in the U.S.” Purely domestic flights are not subject to absolute liability nor the $75,000 cap on damages. Absolute liability and limitation on damages apply only to lawsuits against the airlines that have signed onto the Montreal Agreement. It is inapplicable to petitions against airplane manufacturers or suppliers, and airlines that are not signatories to the agreement. Additionally, the Transportation Department proposed a regulation to allow airlines to relinquish the $75,000 limit, and some have agreed.
  1. The $75,000 limit on damages does not apply if you can prove willful misconduct. Often, a critical issue in lawsuits relating to international flights is whether the airline’s behavior constitutes “willful misconduct.” Because judges and jurors recognize the cruelty of the $75,000 limit on victims of international airplane crashes, they appear to be keen on finding a reason to rule the airline’s misconduct as willful.
  1. You are not entitled to recover for emotional distress only without a co-occurring physical injury, but you can recover damages for bodily injury alone. You can only recover damages for emotional pain arising from physical injuries, but not emotional pain on its own.
  1. If a plane crashes in the high seas, you can only recover financial losses for the loss of your loved one. You cannot claim emotional distress, loss of care, or loss of society.

Contact a Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney Near Me

All aviation related lawsuits involve more than just state laws and require making elaborate decisions to streamline procedures and maximize recovery. Additionally, insurance adjusters owe allegiance to their clients. Therefore, they will push you to settle quickly or attempt to delay the process if you decline their offer. However, you do not need to suffer both due to your injuries and again through a strenuous compensation process.  We at the Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney have years of experience in handling claims for airplane accident victims. We understand the legal issues and the best defense tactics to successfully litigate on your behalf. If you are a resident of Los Angeles, CA, you can call us at 424-231-2013. We will hold all negligent parties accountable and help you obtain the maximum possible compensation.