Whether you’re going on a business trip or a family vacation, the last thing you want to be thinking about is the possibility of suffering harm while flying to your destination. Injuries from turbulence or other in-flight incidents do not occur frequently, but they do tend to be severe. According to statistics provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), approximately 146 crew members and passengers on flights suffered serious injuries from turbulence between 2009 and 2021.
The odds of suffering life-changing injuries from turbulence are, thankfully, quite low. However, many passengers are hurt by falling overhead baggage, slip and falls on the way to or from the airplane’s restroom, or unexpected bouts of turbulence. This article discusses what turbulence is, how to stay safe while flying through turbulence, and who may be legally liable for in-flight injuries.
What is Turbulence?
Most people will experience turbulence while flying at least once. National Geographic defines turbulence as “chaotic and capricious eddies of air, disturbed from a calmer state by various forces.” When an aircraft experiences significant turbulence, it may change altitude suddenly or drop. These sudden maneuvers can put passengers at risk if they are not sitting down with their seatbelt properly equipped.
Common Injuries Caused by In-Flight Injuries
Most airlines do an excellent job of protecting their passengers during flights. However, there is no foolproof way to prevent any possibility of in-flight injuries. Some of the most common injuries that occur while a plane is in the air include:
- Head, neck, or spinal injuries
- Cuts, scrapes, or bruises
- Broken bones or fractures
- Torn ligaments
- Burns from hot food or liquids
Although there is a near-infinite number of circumstances that could possibly result in any combination of the above injuries, some of the most common causes of in-flight harm are:
- Improperly secured baggage falling from above during turbulence
- Runaway food or beverage carts
- Passenger negligence
- Unexpected turbulence
- Other falling objects (such as in the restroom)
Who Can Be Held Liable for In-Flight Injuries?
Every in-flight injury is unique, and it can be challenging to determine exactly what factors played a role in the harm you suffered. In some cases, it may be able to pursue a successful negligence-based personal injury claim against the airline or a product liability claim against a parts manufacturer. It’s important to speak to a personal injury attorney with experience litigating airline accident cases as soon as possible after the incident, so you can get a better sense of your legal options.
Many in-flight injury claims rest on the theory of negligence. If your injury was caused by the reckless, inattentive, or otherwise negligent actions (or lack thereof) of a ground crew member, maintenance worker, flight attendant, or pilot, you may have the foundation of a negligence-based claim. In most cases, the victim must prove that the defendant had a duty of care that was breached, leading directly to the injuries suffered by the plaintiff.
What is the “Common Carrier” Standard?
A “common carrier” is a public or private entity that transports people or goods from one place or another for a fee. Common carriers are subject to a duty of care that obligates them to protect passengers and property from harm. This duty of care encompasses an airline’s staff as well, from ground crew to pilots. Airlines are not, however, responsible for the actions of federal government inspectors. While a passenger is boarding the plane, traveling to their destination, or exiting the plane they are covered under the airline’s duty of care.
Liability for Injuries Caused by Turbulence
It can be challenging to prove that injuries caused by turbulence occurred due to negligence. If the pilots could have reasonably foreseen the turbulence and failed to do so, resulting in injuries, the airline may be liable for harm caused. Similarly, if the cabin’s seatbelt lights were off and there was no warning for passengers to secure themselves when the turbulence hit, the airline may be responsible for injuries.
Can You Pursue a Negligence Claim Against the FAA?
The FAA is responsible for controlling air traffic. If an FAA employee causes injury to a plane’s passenger through negligence, the victim may be able to sue for compensation. Since the FAA is a federal agency, any lawsuit against them will be subject to procedures and rules that a regular airline claim would not include.
Product Liability Claims
Some in-flight incidents do not occur due to the negligence of an airplane’s crew. In some situations, the plane itself may have a dangerous defect that causes harm to one or more passengers. For example, if a defective overhead bin comes open during a bout of turbulence and spills heavy luggage onto the heads of passengers, the victims may have a case against the bin’s manufacturer.
Some in-flight accidents may have more than one cause, which can make the process of an injury lawsuit particularly complex. As an example, there may be multiple liable parties if a passenger trips over an uneven section of flooring on their way to the plane’s restroom. On the one hand, the manufacturer may be liable for creating an inherently dangerous walkway. At the same time, if there were no hazard markings around the uneven section of flooring and the plane’s crew did not warn passengers of the danger, they may be partially liable for ensuing injuries as well.
Staying Safe While Flying Through Turbulence
Even for seasoned travelers, experiencing heavy turbulence can be a nerve-wracking experience. We’ve put together this list of tips that may help you ride out the worst of the weather and enjoy your flight.
- If you previously experienced anxiety or nausea on a flight, speak to your doctor about anti-anxiety or nausea medications well in advance of your departure
- Select a seat near the front of the plane, as these seats typically experience the least in-flight turbulence
- Remain seated and keep your seatbelt on at all times while the plane is in motion, even if the seatbelt light is not on at the time
- Pay attention to flight announcements, as they may warn you of upcoming turbulence
- Use a distraction, such as a book or favorite TV show, to keep your mind off of the bumpy ride
- Practice breathing exercises or meditation to stay calm
- Speak to a flight attendant if you’re feeling nervous