FAQ: Aviation Accidents

Your Husband, Wife, Child, or Parent Has Been Killed in an Aviation Accident:

Q. Do you need a lawyer?

A. Yes. The matter that you are now dealing with may be one of the most important of your entire life in terms of the financial well-being of you and your family, and the questions presented are very complex. You need a good lawyer.

Q. Should you speak to the airline's insurance company directly?

A. No. The airline's insurance company is a commercial institution whose job it is to make money, or, in this case, to save money. As a layperson dealing with professionals you may say or do things that will prejudice your position.

Q. How do you get the right lawyer for your case?

A. If you have a family lawyer or business lawyer or otherwise know a lawyer in whom you have confidence, talk to the lawyer.

Ask the lawyer to advise you regarding your legal rights. The lawyer will likely be able to help you find the right experienced aviation law firm and in many cases will be able to participate in the litigation.

If you know others victimized by the same accident, or similar accidents, speak to them. Find out who they have retained and why they selected the law firm that they selected. Don't feel you have to sign up with the first lawyer you talk to simply because the lawyer is nice. You have a lot at stake in this claim.

Q. Do you need an aviation lawyer or will any lawyer do?

A. This is a question your personal lawyer can answer best. Some claims are simple and straightforward and an aviation lawyer may not be necessary. On the other hand, for some claims, such as airline crash situations, aviation legal skills will be helpful to you, and typically the total fee you pay won't be any more.

Q. What should you do if an unknown lawyer solicits your case, or wants to talk to you? Should you talk to the lawyer?

A. Solicitation of accident cases, including aviation accident cases, sometimes called "ambulance chasing" is frowned upon by most responsible lawyers and most good lawyers don't do it. You may, therefore, simply not want to talk to the soliciting lawyer. Furthermore, federal law in the United States forbids any unsolicited communications by lawyers to victims or victim families during the first forty-five days following an airline disaster.

On the other hand, if you feel that you are strong and careful, and that you can take care of yourself, you might learn something and derive some benefit from talking to the soliciting lawyer. Tell the lawyer at the outset that you are going to talk to other lawyers before making a decision. Ask about the lawyer's experience and what he or she knows about the accident, and what the legal strategy would be. Ask whether that lawyer has been appointed by a court to a leadership role in a plaintiff's executive committee in any past litigation. Ask the lawyer if there are any special problems and if he or she thinks it's a good case or a difficult case. Ask the lawyer what his/her fee would be and whether it will be based on the gross recovery or the net recovery (after expenses are deducted.) Ask the lawyer whether he or she will advance necessary expenses, or if you have to pay them as they are incurred. Ask the soliciting lawyer whether he or she will actually work on your case or simply "sell" it to another law firm for a referral fee. Don't be pressured into hiring the lawyer; remember that a lawyer who solicits cases is most often the last person you want to hire.

Q. Is there a rush to do something? How much time do you have?

A. In most cases, you have at least a year from the date of the accident to take appropriate action in court, if it becomes necessary, so do not permit any lawyer to rush you into signing a retainer. There are circumstances, however, that may require quicker action and speaking to an aviation lawyer as soon as possible after an aviation accident about deadlines (including statutes of limitations and notice of claim requirements) is advisable. Lawyers who rush victims are suspect. Their real interest may be in getting you to sign a retainer contract, and even starting your case, with publicity, in the hope it will attract other clients to them. You should be suspicious of any lawyer who pressures you into signing a retainer.

On the other hand, there are often times advantages to retaining a qualified lawyer sooner rather than later. Doing so will allow the lawyer to start the investigations, such as preserving evidence and speaking with eye witnesses before their recollection is affected.

Q. If you sign a contract with a lawyer what should the fee be?

A. Most accident cases in the United States are handled on a contingent fee of 33 1/3 percent of the recovery. Sometimes the fee is based on the gross recovery and sometimes it is based on the net recovery (the gross recovery less expenses.) Obviously, the latter is better for you.

There are economies in the handling of mass disasters, however, and they, plus competition, may bring the fees down. Fees in mass disasters airline crash cases are often 25 percent, and sometimes they are even lower. The fee you agree to should include the fee of your personal lawyer, the fee of the expert specialist and the fee of any local counsel who becomes necessary. Your retainer contract should provide for that.

Don't be bashful. Shop around for fees. When you decide on which lawyer you would like to handle your case ask whether the lawyer will match any better fee you've been quoted. Most of the time lawyers will. Remember though that the fee is often less important to you than the quality of the lawyer and his or her ability to set you a sizable award. The best lawyer will usually get the best recovery for you, and it may be worth a few extra percentage points.

Q. Can you change your mind, after you have signed a retainer contract, and change lawyers: what, if anything, will it cost you? How do you do it?

A. You can always change your mind about who should represent you. Your new lawyer will address the discharged lawyer's fee and in virtually all cases you will not pay additional attorney's fees because you switched lawyers.

Thus, if you have been rushed into signing with the wrong lawyer you can simply discharge the lawyer by a letter or e-mail. Your new lawyer will help you do this.

Q. What is the most important thing to look for in an aviation lawyer?

A. There are actually two things that are most important:

  1. You need to have a highly competent lawyer, and
  2. You need to be able to trust that lawyer.