Airplane Turbulence Injuries: Liability is Up in the Air

Five people had to be hospitalized on Monday after their United Airlines flight encountered some rough turbulence on the flight path between Denver and Billings, Montana. (Get the full story from The Denver Post.)

While a particularly bumpy flight can lead to rows full of white knuckles and muttered prayers, the fact is that actual injuries caused by turbulence are pretty rare.  According to the Federal Aviation Administration, every year around 58 people in the U.S. are injured by turbulence on a commercial flight. Over an almost-20 year period (from 1980 through 2008), 298 airline passengers and flight attendants were seriously injured in a turbulence-related incident, and three people died.

But what if you are injured on a turbulent flight? It’s possible that the airline could be held legally responsible for your injuries, especially since airlines are considered “common carriers” and the law imposes a heightened duty of care on them. That means airlines must use the vigilance of a very cautious person in order to protect passengers from potential harm.

That heightened standard of care doesn’t guarantee that you will have an easy time proving your case, however. It’s not enough to show that your flight experienced turbulence and that you were injured as a result. You also need to prove that the airline or one of its employees was somehow negligent in connection with the incident.

So, did the captain and the flight crew take reasonable steps to avoid the turbulence and follow proper protocol for warning passengers — ordering everyone to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts, for example? Was the flight understaffed? You could also have a valid claim against the manufacturer of a seatbelt or other piece of equipment if it was defective or otherwise did not perform properly, and that played a role in your injury.

On the other side of the causation coin, if the plane’s captain warned passengers to stay in their seats with their seatbelts fastened because the aircraft was entering a particularly rough stretch of turbulent air, and you decided to stretch your legs in the aisle anyway, the airline is likely to argue that you share most or all of the blame for your own injuries.

For everything you need to know about these kinds of cases, check out Nolo’s popular article Airplane Turbulence and In-Flight Injuries.