Turbulence and in-flight injuries: Who is liable?

Bumpy air is expected, but a poor flight plan can cause serious injuries.

Turbulence during a flight is common. In some cases, the turbulence is severe and can result in injuries. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that approximately 40 people suffer serious injuries due to turbulence in the United States every year. However, a recent publication by the Claims Journal notes that this figure is likely an underestimate. Airlines are not required to report injuries unless the injury results in a two day hospital stay. Anything that results in an overnight stay at the hospital or less can go unreported. This would include injuries like broken bones and organ damage.

A recent incident involving an American Airlines flight to Philadelphia brought attention to these reporting guidelines. The flight experienced serious turbulence. Three passengers and seven crew members were injured and taken to the hospital for treatment. These injuries do not meet the reporting requirements.

Turbulence: Definition and common causes

The FAA defines turbulence as "air movement that normally cannot be seen and often occurs unexpectedly." Though often unexpected, there are certain factors that increase the likelihood a flight would experience serious bouts of turbulence. These factors include the presence of thunderstorms, cold or warm air fronts and air around mountains.

In flight injuries: Liability and responsible parties

The Federal Aviation Act holds airlines to a high standard of care. Airlines are responsible for completion of required maintenance and inspections of their aircrafts.

Pilots and other airline employees are expected to check weather conditions in the designated flight path. If conditions indicate that serious turbulence is likely, the flight path may be altered or the flight delayed. Pilots can also implement techniques to help get through turbulence safely. This can include changing speed to what is referred to as "turbulence-penetration speed." This is basically fast enough that the plane does not stall, but slow enough that it eases through the turbulence.

Injuries to victims: Tips and options

Those who are injured during a flight may hold an airline, airline employee or other party responsible for the costs that result from the injury through a personal injury lawsuit. This can result in a monetary award that provides for costs like medical treatment and lost wages.

It is important to note that the airline will likely build a defense against such claims. These defenses can include allegations that the passenger did not take proper precautions to ensure his or her safety, such as buckling a seatbelt. As such, it is wise to seek experienced legal counsel to help build your case and better ensure you receive the legal remedies you are entitled.