What you need to know about in-flight injuries

About 6.4 million people will fly the friendly skies this holiday season. A select few of them may arrive to their destination with in-flight injuries.

Although rare, in-flight injuries do happen. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, turbulence causes about 58 accidents a year. Falling baggage injures about 4,500 passengers annually.

When airline passengers get injured, federal laws and contracts of carriage limit airlines' liability.

Contract of Carriage

When you book a flight, you agree to that airline's contract of carriage. The contract of carriage protects or limits liability for delay, damage and loss of baggage; reservation rules; schedule changes, and rerouting, among other terms.

The contract of carriage also limits the time period under which a passenger can file a claim or bring action against the airline. For example, Southwest Airlines' contract of carriage states "no claim for personal injury or death of a passenger will be entertained by Carrier unless written notice of such claim is received by Carrier within 21 days after the occurrence..."

If you're injured on a flight, notify the airline right away.

Negligence and duty of care

When we board a plane, the airline must provide passengers "the highest duty of care." In a nutshell, that means the airline must transport the passenger safely to their destination. Duty of care begins when we're boarding and continues until we get off the plane.

During that time, if we're injured, and an airline employee's carelessness caused the accident, you may have a negligence claim. For the claim to survive, you have to prove the airline--the defendant--had a duty of care, and the defendant breached that duty by acting carelessly and causing your injury.

Cases involving airlines, however, aren't as straightforward as cases on the ground. Personal injury claims, such as a slip on the tarmac or a shoulder injury from a fallen bag, may be pre-empted under The Airline Deregulation Act (ADA). Claims related to "rates, routes, and services" are preempted under the Act. Claims related to "operations and maintenance" are not preempted under the Act pursuant to Hodges v. Delta Airlines Inc., 44 F.3d 334 (5th Cir. 1995).

State-law claims such as negligence are subject to dismissal if they fall under ADA's scope. If a flight attendant drops a bag on your head, or if you hit turbulence and a broken latch on the overhead bin pops open, dropping a bag onto your shoulder, you may or may not have a case.

Whether you have a valid claim depends on the facts of the case, the scope of the injuries, and the amount of damages.

To protect your rights, file a complaint with the airline and the Department of Transportation as soon as possible. If your complaint involves a policy issue, such as discrimination or involuntary bumping, the Department of Transportation will investigate. If your complaint involves a service issue, such as falling luggage, the Department of Transportation requires the airline to respond to your complaint within 30 days.

In-flight injury cases are complex and require an understanding of both personal injury and aviation law. If your travel plans get derailed by significant injuries, contact an experienced personal injury lawyer right away.

May you have a happy and safe holiday season!

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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David G. Smith, Attorney At Law
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