Turbulence-Related Injuries: What Are Your Legal Rights?

It all started with that unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach when a flight attendant asked passengers to return to their seats because rough conditions were ahead. Or, perhaps there was no announcement, but instead what felt like a sudden sharp drop in altitude, followed by a prolonged bumpy ride. As you tightened your seat belt and held on tight to your in-flight beverage, you began to prepare yourself for the worst.

If you have been on a flight with extreme turbulence, you know that the experience can be terrifying. What you might not fully understand, however, is what legal rights you or a loved one have if you sustain injuries on one of these flights. Let’s explore the aftermath of these incidents, consider what can happen to victims, and discuss what legal protections you have to help you decide whether to pursue legal action in an effort to recover compensation for the suffering of you or a family member.

What Do the Statistics Tell Us?

Turbulence is an unexpected and often abrupt movement of air which can occur when planes are flying through clear skies at cruising altitudes. These conditions can also be caused by storms, cold or warm fronts, jet streams, atmospheric pressure, or air moving around mountains. The severity of turbulence can be classified on a scale, from light to extreme.

Although the flight crew consults weather conditions, radar, and reports from other pilots prior to leaving the ground and makes necessary adjustments to the flight plan, turbulence can be difficult to avoid, for a number of reasons. First of all, weather models are often incapable of predicting airplane-sized pockets of rough air. Often, pilot reports of turbulence can be inaccurate by as much as dozens of miles. Lastly, especially in the case of clear air turbulence (CAT), pilots are usually unable to visually detect a problem in what appears to be normal conditions, and onboard equipment is notoriously inaccurate in forecasting when it will occur. While most pilots are accustomed to adjusting the speed or altitude of an aircraft to help minimize the impact of more minor levels of turbulence, the consequences can be quite serious if the disruption to airflow around the plane is severe.

Turbulence is the most common culprit for airline injuries and is responsible for about 75% of weather-related accidents and injuries. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 58 people each year are injured as a result of turbulence. Because many passengers do not report their injuries, the impact of these incidents is probably significantly higher. Can turbulence cause a plane to crash? While it’s unlikely, it can and has happened.

Most turbulence occurs at around 30,000 feet in the air, and a majority of injury victims did not have their seat belts fastened. That said, passengers with seat belts on can still be in danger if a loose object in the cabin or even a fellow passenger falls on them during a period of rough air. Because of the nature of their work, crew members are more likely to sustain injuries or have more life-altering consequences linked to an incident involving severe turbulence.

FAA data reveals that the number of flights in the U.S. that experienced serious accidents because of turbulence more than doubled from 1982 to 2003. While not all plane crashes in 2018 and in recent years were linked to turbulence, these conditions can make it difficult for even the most experienced flight crews to reach their destination safely and can combine with other factors to cause a catastrophic accident.

Even more troubling, researchers believe that climate change will lead to a rise in severe clear-air turbulence incidents. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising temperatures contribute to stronger wind shears from jet streams and unstable airflow at common cruising altitudes, making flying even more dangerous.

Clearly, turbulence is a threat to passenger safety. Enhancements to cabin design and emerging predictive modeling designed to help prevent these incidents will come too late for families who have already been impacted by this unforeseeable and all-too-common atmospheric phenomenon.

Injuries Related to Turbulence

After being on a flight that has had a significant level of turbulence, passengers and crew members can suffer in a number of ways, including experiencing:

  • Cuts and bruises
  • Broken bones
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Burns
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Thoracic and abdominal injuries
  • Emotional trauma

In the most tragic cases, these injuries can be fatal. In others, victims’ lives are forever changed as a result of the incident. The FAA tracks only the most serious injuries and fatalities in its statistics. A serious injury is defined by the agency as either requiring over 48 hours of hospitalization or involving a fracture, an injury to an internal organ, a second or third-degree burn or one which covers more than 5% of a victim’s body, or a major hemorrhage or damage to a muscle, tendon, or nerve.

Perhaps the most devastating example of the power of turbulence took place in 1966, when a British Airways pilot departing from Hong Kong flew too close to Mount Fuji on the way to Tokyo. The aircraft was caught in a strong wind gust which was so forceful that it broke the plane apart. In a matter of minutes, the crew of Flight 911 lost control of the plane, and all 133 people on board perished as the jet fell in pieces toward the base of the mountain.

A number of flights in the past few years have been impacted by violent turbulence. Among them was United Airlines Flight 800, bound for Heathrow Airport in London from Houston in late August 2016. The pilots were forced to make an emergency landing in Ireland after flying through a major, fast-moving thunderstorm. Twelve passengers were hospitalized with soft tissue injuries, head injuries, and cuts and other lesser conditions. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.

A flight attendant broke her leg and at least 30 passengers received emergency medical attention after Turkish Air Flight 001 landed at JFK Airport from Istanbul in early 2019. The pilots encountered turbulence 45 minutes before landing. Most of those injured walked away with bumps and bruises, although the emotional toll on those involved is likely significant and long-lasting.

Laws to Protect Airline Passengers

The FAA is responsible for the safety of civil aviation. This federal agency enforces standards and other rules related to the manufacturing, operation, and maintenance of aircraft. As a part of this mandate, the FAA also certifies airmen and airports, as well as upholding regulations surrounding air navigation and traffic control. Every accident involving a civil aircraft is investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who also issues recommendations for safety enhancements to help avoid future crashes.

Victims in turbulence-related incidents and their families may have grounds to file a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit against an airline, an airline employee, or a product manufacturer. While a carrier cannot always predict turbulence, it could be found negligent if the crew did not warn passengers that turbulence was likely. If you can prove that the behavior of a flight attendant caused turbulence-related injuries, an individual may be able to find that airline employee responsible. When a defective latch is responsible for a piece of luggage falling out of an overhead bin and a passenger is injured as a result, a manufacturer could be found at fault.

Aviation is an extremely challenging area of law, with a very complicated set of laws and jurisdictions designed with travelers’ safety in mind. In addition, planes are extremely complex machines, particularly in this era of technology when increased automation has revolutionized both manufacturing and pilot training. With rising fuel costs, increased competition, and an overall increase in air travel, the airline industry is looking for ways to cut costs and increase revenues wherever possible—an environment in which mistakes can happen, some which can have catastrophic results for the lives of passengers and crew members.

The Montreal Convention

This Montreal Convention, adopted by 133 nations that are part of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) since its initial signing in 1999, provides airline passengers on an international flight with a legal mechanism to receive compensation for any kind of injury sustained during air travel, including those related to turbulence. This international treaty applies to flights which involve travel between signatory countries, which now includes most industrialized nations. Protections apply, even if a passenger experiences an injury on the domestic portion of the trip. For example, imagine you are flying from San Francisco to Tokyo, with a layover in Los Angeles. If you suffer an injury on the San Francisco-Los Angeles leg because of significant turbulence, you could recover compensation under the Montreal Convention.

While travelers on a domestic flight must prove negligence to receive compensation for turbulence-related injuries, international passengers are considered to be under the care of an airline, which requires a carrier to be responsible under the agreement for any damages. This can make it easier in these situations to pursue legal action for injuries on these flights. In addition to turbulence, injuries sustained because of malfunctioning seats and falling baggage, as well as those passengers might experience while on shuttles to your plane, could be eligible for compensation.

Evaluating Your Options In the Aftermath of a Turbulence-Related Accident

The aftermath of a flight with extreme turbulence can be harrowing for both passengers and crew. In addition to seeking medical treatment for what can be serious and life-altering injuries, victims and surviving family members are often emotionally traumatized in the days and months following the incident. When exploring whether and how to hold those accountable for your suffering in the legal system, you want a compassionate and knowledgeable team of professionals serving as tenacious advocates for your interests. The experienced team of aviation attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger have a reputation for exploring every possible legal avenue to pursue justice on behalf of their clients. If you want a team with extensive resources, unparalleled know-how, and dogged dedication to securing the best possible settlement for you and your family after a flight with severe turbulence, contact us for a free consultation.