An airplane crash is a nightmare scenario. Although airplane crashes are extremely rare, many Americans live in fear of a disaster in the skies.

Survivors of an airplane crash and families of crash victims are often able to bring a lawsuit against the company responsible for the crash. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, different companies could face liability for injuries or fatalities.

The most common causes of airplane crashes are:

  • Pilot error
  • Mistakes by a federal air traffic controller
  • Defectively designed or manufactured aircraft
  • Defective equipment, such as cockpit instruments or pressurization systems
  • Faulty repair or maintenance
  • Fuel problems

In a high-profile event like an airplane crash, government agencies are called in to investigate. The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and independent investigators can all be involved in determining the exact cause of a crash.

Pilot error would be an example of negligence, which is the cornerstone of personal injury litigation. The pilot would be considered negligent if he or she acted in a way that, given the same circumstances, a reasonable pilot would not have. This can include making a reckless decision, failing to pay attention, or failing to do something when he or she should have.

Traffic controller error requires the plaintiff(s) to sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act. As employees of the Federal Aviation Agency, traffic controllers are federal agents, and claims against the federal government have a different set of rules and procedures.

Product liability can play a role if the aircraft, equipment, or structure of the plane is defective in any way. If the plane was defectively manufactured and the defect was the cause of the crash, the manufacturer or a related party could shoulder the liability for the passengers’ injuries or death. In these cases, the plaintiff(s) would not have to prove the manufacturer was negligent; rather, they would only have to prove that the defect caused the crash.

For example, say a Boeing 747 was mistakenly fitted with a fuel tank designed for a much smaller aircraft. American Airlines purchases the Boeing 747 and schedules it for a New York-Beijing flight, which takes approximately 14 hours’ worth of fuel. Despite fueling the plane properly and flying it correctly, the plane runs out of fuel before reaching its destination and crashes, fatally injuring many passengers. American Airlines would not be responsible for the crash; rather, as an investigation should show, Boeing is at fault for manufacturing the aircraft incorrectly.

After a major airline disaster, the U.S. government provides certain support to survivors and families of victims. The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, passed in 1996, established a number of responsibilities for airlines, as well as rules and procedures in the event of an airplane crash. The Act mandates that certain services are provided to survivors and victim’s families, including counseling services, victim identification and forensic services, daily briefings for family members, a memorial service, and a grieving place for families. The airline is required to inform all families before the victims are made public, establish a toll-free telephone line for victims’ families, and assist the families in traveling to the accident site and staying to mourn.