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Liability for In-Flight Injuries

In early February 2014, when United Airlines Flight 1676 landed in Billings, Montana, three flight attendants and two passengers were injured and immediately transported to area hospitals with broken ankles or fractured ribs.  The culprit of the injuries?  Turbulence. Passengers described the turbulence as so severe that it was the “scariest 25 seconds” of their lives.  Although serious injuries from in-flight airplane incidents do not usually receive media coverage, they occur with some regularity. Each year, several airlines report injuries, ranging from minor to severe to fatal, caused by turbulence, luggage falling from overhead bins, and falls in the aisle. Passengers, who are injured, may be able to sue the airline, the airplane manufacturer, and sometimes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Types of In-Flight Accidents

When you board an airplane and stow your luggage in the overhead bin, the flight attendants always check each bin to make sure that it is properly closed and latched.  Passengers are usually warned to be careful when opening overhead bins as the baggage may have shifted during the flight.  Despite the care taken by flight attendants and the warnings given, thousands of passengers are injured each year from baggage that has fallen from overhead bins.

While airline meals are less common these days, rolling food carts remain a common cause of injury.  The aisles on airplanes are notoriously narrow.  If a cart is not pushed with the utmost care, and even when care is taken, carts can easily ram into seated passengers, causing injury to arms, shoulders, legs, ankles, or feet.

During takeoff and landing, or during times of turbulence, passengers are told to stay seated. However, even during smooth flights a walk down an airplane aisle can be just as hazardous.  Passengers may hit their feet on the metal legs at the bottom of the seats while others bump into the arms of the seats.  Additionally, it’s not uncommon for a passenger to  trip or slip and fall.

Many of the more serious injuries are caused when an airplane experiences turbulence.  Passengers are instructed to sit down and buckle up when turbulence is expected.  Typically, when orders are followed, everyone gets through mild turbulence unscathed.  However, severe turbulence can be quite dangerous and passengers can be thrown from seats.  Passengers, who fail to wear seatbelts during turbulence, are most at risk for receiving severe injuries during the rocky flight.  Each year, on average, 36 passengers and crew are injured on airplanes due to turbulence.

Airline Liability

When a  passenger is injured in-flight, the airline is usually liable.  If an airline employee was in some way negligent and a passenger was injured as a result, then the airline may be liable.  For example, if a flight attendant rammed a food cart into a passenger’s  arm causing an injury, the airline would be liable.  Similarly, if the flight attendants failed to make sure that an overhead bin was properly closed, and as a result a bag fell on a passenger, the airline would likely be liable.  However, if an overhead bin flew open because the latch was defective, the airplane manufacturer may be liable based on a product liability theory, while the airline may escape liability. Other types of mishaps may result in liability for other entities.  For instance, if air traffic controllers made an error that resulted in two airplanes clipping each other on the runway, the FAA may be liable.  If the recklessness of a contractor servicing an airplane results in an injury, that contractor may be liable.

While airlines make it their top priority to make passenger travel as safe and comfortable as possible, passengers can be injured during a flight.  Although airlines hold most of the responsibility for any injuries that take place during the flight, it is equally important for passengers to take responsibility for their own safety by following directions.

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