The law and your rights when injured while flying

In this issue of Law School for You, we discuss your rights if you are injured in an airplane through the negligence of the airlines, turbulence or your own actions.

US Airways Flight 1549 - By Greg L [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2017 – Being injured while flying does occur. Some of these injuries are fatal, but far more are less drastic. Some injuries occur because of negligence on the part of the airlines, ranging from maintenance issues to problems ranging from stewards to the pilot.

On the other hand, some injuries occur simply because people are negligent.

To fly or not to fly

Many people will not get onto an airplane for fear of the worst, a crash ending in death. Wilbur and Orville Wright, credited with inventing the first airplane in 1903, probably did not think about airline crashes despite the fact that the Wright Flyer was damaged in only its third flight.

Estimates place the number of annual deaths involving transportation vehicles (cars, trucks, SUVs, trains, buses, motorcycles, bicycles) over 40,000. Airplane fatalities number, on average each year, under 600.

Statistics simply do not support the fear that keeps people from boarding an airplane. It is the horror of the imagination, what could happen, that stops people from boarding.

The law for injury claims

Negligence laws govern most injury claims, including airplane related injuries. Negligence requires that something was done improperly, or not done (omission). The law requires that there is a duty on the part of the wrongdoer and that there was a breach, or failure, of that duty.

Most people understand those requirements, even if they are not able to fully detail them

There have been a great many lawsuits filed for victims of airplane crashes and other disasters. The issue in those lawsuits is (more often than not) an effort to prove responsibility for the bad result, the crash, the fire, or whatever the cause was that resulted in deaths or injuries to crew and passengers.

Aviation lawsuits are complex. They can involve many potential theories of responsibility, or liability, under state, federal and international law. There are potentially many different defendants to identify, and potentially more than one court in which a trial may take place.

Other injuries are the result of accidents on the plane. A suitcase falling out of an overhead bin, or even a food cart rolling into or over someone, are examples. According to one estimate, approximately 4,500 passengers are injured each year from falling baggage.

When physical defects cause plane problems and injuries, it is possible that a products liability claim could be brought.

Not so negligent

Some people are injured intentionally by airline personnel or by police acting at the request of airline crews. In April of this year, Dr. David Dao was forcibly dragged off of a United Airlines flight when he refused to voluntarily give up his seat.

Of note, while not an “injury,” airlines are allowed to overbook, and do so in anticipation of no-shows. If passengers are asked to volunteer for another flight, and no one volunteers, airlines can select passengers for removal based on factors such as check-in time or the cost of a ticket. Dr. Dao was not successful in his settlement because he was in the right, as much as the airlines desire to stop the bad publicity.

Standard of care

The Federal Aviation Act sets the standard for conduct and the required care with which airlines must comply. An airline must exercise vigilance in every aspect of its operations, maintenance, inspection of the plane, loading and boarding of the plane.

However, an airline is not, and should not be required to be an absolute guarantor of the safety of all of its passengers all of the time. An airline however is required to what is reasonable, and “more”, to prevent injuries from happening.

In order to find that an airline is responsible for an injury, there must be a showing that the airline was at fault. Tripping on the way to the airplane’s restroom may or may not result in the airline being responsible. Did the person trip due to clumsiness or a piece of carpeting not properly tacked down?

The airline pilot is often a defendant in accident claim matters. He or she is the sole authority responsible for the safe operation of the plane, and he or she is required to familiarize him or herself with all available information regarding the airplane’s condition, the flight, and even the weather conditions during the flight.

Airline ground personnel are also responsible. They must properly inspect the plane and assure it is in safe working condition. A recent government inspection of the plane may not protect the airline against suit.

The manufacturer, seller or repairer of a plane, or its equipment, may also be responsible for passenger injuries if there are inherent defects that cause malfunctions, particulary if they were known.

Air traffic controllers owe a duty to passengers to assure safe airplane takeoffs and landings, and to prevent in-air airplane-to-airplane crashes. Note that controllers are not responsible for birdstrikes flying into airplane engines. The flyers on US Airways Flight 1549, infamously piloted to a water landing in the Hudson after a Canadian Geese bird strike, by Captain Chesley Sullenberger and C-Captain Jeffrey Skiles, did recieve their belongings and some type of settlement from the airlines, though no definitive amounts can be found.


An injured party may recover compensation, or damages, in several “categories” from an airplane incident. These include past and future medical bills, lost wages and lost earning capacity and past and future disruption of life, including pain, suffering, emotional distress and more. In certain cases, punitive damages can be recovered as well.

Each jurisdiction will have rules about what damages are recoverable.

Airline Rankings, Ratings

Martin Rivers, writing in Forbes in 2016, argues that airline safety ratings, and rankings, are meaningless. He says the law of averages does not come into force with limited air crash data, that in order to properly assess one airline or another, each airline would have to show a large enough pool of data to properly assess its track record, and that no airline can do that.

Rivers interviewed Paul Hayes, the safety and insurance director at Ascend, an aviation consultancy organization, who agreed with River’s assessment.

Joe Public wants to be told that he’s flying on the safest airline in the world, but realistically no one can give you that comfort,” Hayes says. “It’s a case of lies, damned lies and statistics. The problem is that when you look at individual carriers, no airline in the world is big enough to suffer loss of average. If you had hundreds of millions of flights and thousands of accidents, then you could do very robust statistics. But accidents are so incredibly rare that even huge airlines like Delta can’t suffer one incident in five years and still be average.:

Travelers should know:

  1. Usually the skies are friendly (United Airlines)
  2. The sky may or may not be the best place on earth (Air France)
  3. Some things may or may not be special in the air (American Airlines)
  4. You are free to move about the country (Southwest Airlines)
  5. They do love to fly, and mostly it shows (Delta Airlines)


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:

Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. The website for this business is brand new and Mr. Samakow will be most appreciative of any and all comments.



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