Common Airplane Turbulence Accidents

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Though the number of major airline accidents have diminished in recent years, in-flight turbulence-related injuries have increased, in part due to overworked flight crews and inadequate enforcement of safety protocols.

In recent years, though the number of serious air incidents and disasters has diminished significantly — statistically, air travel is the safest it has ever been — there has been an increase in in-flight injuries connected to turbulence. Injuries stemming from turbulence may be connected to acts of negligence on the part of the airline, flight crew, or component part manufacturers such as weather radar, among others. Crucially, if you have been injured in an in-flight accident caused by turbulence, you may be entitled to recover damages.

International vs. Domestic Flights

It is worth noting that successful litigation of injuries sustained due to turbulence will differ depending on whether the injuries were sustained on an international or domestic flight. The Montreal Convention governs injured passenger claims on international flights. Pursuant to the Montreal Convention, an injured passenger need only show that their injury was caused by an unusual or unexpected event or occurrence, external to the passenger, and not the passenger’s internal reaction to the normal operation of the aircraft. Basically, that means that if a passenger’s ear drum ruptures during an ordinary descent, there is no accident and no basis for recovery. If, however, the airplane drops significantly due to turbulence, and a passenger suffers the same ruptured ear drum, they may be entitled to recover from the airline.

Injuries on domestic flights are typically governed by common law negligence, and the injured passenger must show that their injury was caused in substantial part by an act of negligence. Simply put, the presence of turbulence is not enough to give rise to a claim. Negligence must interact with turbulence to produce the injury. Turbulence is often foreseeable, thanks to advances in aviation technology and weather radar technology. Therefore, if the turbulence was foreseeable by the flight crew, and they failed to take adequate steps to avoid it or warn their passengers in time, they may be entitled to sue the airline for negligence.

In either situation, retaining an experienced aviation accident lawyer is necessary to commence an investigation and insure that the airline, air traffic control, and other possible entities are placed on immediate notice to preserve the proper electronic materials necessary for the injured passenger to prove their claim.

So, what are some common in-flight accidents that occur due to turbulence? Consider the following.

Falling Baggage

Flight crews are trained to secure carry-on baggage in the overhead bins and to guide passengers to store excess or smaller carry-ons under the seat directly in front of them. However, for more than a decade, airlines have been battling rising operational costs and greater competition in the aviation space. To keep up, many airlines have implemented new fees on checked baggage, which has led to regular overstuffing of the overhead bins, thus compromising flight safety

In the event that carry-on baggage falls out of the overhead bins and injures you, then you may have a claim against the airline if the flight crew negligently allowed the overhead bins to be overstuffed with baggage or failed to securely latch the overhead bins. Prior to boarding flights, most airlines have metal receptacles that carry-on bags must fit into, but few if, any airlines actually require passengers to place their bags into them. As such, bins
tend to be filled with bags beyond their permitted dimension and weight.

Beverage Burns

Airlines have safety regulations that state when their cabin crews can serve hot drinks. Many airlines brew coffee and tea at water temperatures in excess of 200 degrees Fahrenheit resulting in instant serious burns on contact. Passengers are at increased risk of being burned by hot beverages during turbulence and thus guidelines typically require that flight attendants refrain from serving hot beverages during turbulence. Beverage burns may also result from cups sliding off of the flimsy fold down, un-level trays. Passengers should be careful if their trays are not level and should notify a flight attendant immediately and document by camera phone if possible, if they have been burned as the result of a defective fold down tray table.

Service Cart Impacts

A fully loaded beverage or meal service cart can weigh several hundred pounds. Under calm air conditions, they can cause serious injuries if they impact feet, knees and other body parts that may drift out into the aisle. During turbulence, the risk of harm posed by these carts increases significantly as they have been known to roll and crash into seat-belted passengers, topple over or toss their contents, sometimes burning hot, into the cabin.

Aisle Trip Hazards
Aisle hazards can pose a trip-and-fall injury risk to passengers, even during smooth portions of the flight. During turbulence (light or heavy), the risk posed by these hazards are increased, as passengers may not be readily able to identify the presence of aisle hazards due to the need to balance themselves. Flight crew may be found negligent if they failed to take proper measures to inspect and clear the aisles of potential trip-and-fall hazards.

Lack of Seatbelt Warnings

Wearing the provided seatbelt can prevent many in-flight turbulence-related injuries. When severe turbulence is expected, proper warnings (including but not necessarily limited to lighting of the seatbelt sign) should be given by the flight crew to prepare passengers. For example, a passenger who is waiting for the toilet should be warned by nearby crew to return to their seat and buckle up. If the flight crew fails to warn passengers to use their seatbelts, then, depending on the circumstances, the failure to do so may constitute negligence.

Abram Bohrer is co-founder and partner of Bohrer & Lukeman, a full service personal injury firm that focuses on serving airplane accident victims. Abe has been practicing for over 25 years, and has been listed among the top 5% of New York attorneys (having been designated a “Super Lawyer” from 2007-2017). As an aviation accident attorney, Abe has the distinction of having handled Magan v. Lufthansa, the leading case on turbulence injuries under the Montreal Convention.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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