Airplane Accidents and Aviation Law

Aviation law is the branch of law concerning flight and air travel, in terms of legality, business, and injury. It is a very specialized practice, due to the rarity and nature of airplane accidents. Also, because it often overlaps with admiralty and international law (such as when airplane accidents occur over international waters).

Although air traffic is considered one of the safest means of transportation, and commercial flight crashes are rare and often end in fatalities, private airplane accidents are more common than people might think. The media does not report many of these private airplane accidents, though, so they often go unheard.

Common Causes of Plane Crashes

“General aviation” is a phrase used to describe all non-commercial aircraft, including small planes, charter flights, helicopters, business jets, pleasure crafts, and even hang gliders. The most common causes of crashes are from a) pilot error, b) faulty equipment, and c) design or structural problems. Also, incidents can occur from negligence of air traffic controllers, flight service employees, or regulations.

In the United States there are two agencies that regulate and investigate all commercial and private airplane accidents. These agencies are the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The FAA sets pilot safety standards and regulates through civil or criminal penalties. The NTSB investigates every civil aircraft accident and then recommends safety precautions to prevent future airplane accidents.

Personal Injury Claims

If an attorney pursues a legal claim after an airplane accident, the potential liable parties can vary. They could be the owner or operator of the craft, the manufacturers, the airline, the maintenance suppliers, or even the federal government. Litigation is complex in these cases, as liability often falls under different state, federal, and international laws.

Most claims for personal injury or death from airplane accidents are pursued under the theory of negligence or product liability. Negligent pilots or maintenance providers are often litigated against, as are manufacturers of defective products or parts.

Liable Parties

Aircraft owners and operators are held to a high “duty of care.” If recklessness or carelessness is proven, the owner of the aircraft will be held liable for damages to those injured in the airplane accident. This includes people both in the craft and on the ground, the pilot and staff, and damaged structures. Even if the owner was not operating the aircraft, they could be found liable through “vicarious liability.” If a defect is found and proven to have caused the airplane accident, the manufacturer will be held liable under “strict liability.”

The most common damages in a personal injury claim from airplane accidents are for medical expenses (past and future). Also, lost wages or earning capacity, punitive damages, pain and suffering (past and future), and emotional distress. A lawyer must understand the complexity of aviation law, aircraft function and safety, the FAA and NTSB regulations.


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