Commercial Airline Crashes

The sudden, unexpected and simultaneous deaths of tens or even hundreds of people that typically occur in commercial airliner crashes push the envelope of human conceivability. In addition to the unimaginable grief and loss, discovering the cause of such crashes is perhaps the most complicated endeavor in all of aviation. The investigations involve hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours and are usually physically, emotionally and financially demanding. When a crash involves a U.S. carrier or a flight to or from the U.S., representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board will generally take the investigation’s leading role and will often be assisted by the FAA, industry experts and experts retained to represent the families of the victims.

The legal considerations in commercial airliner crash cases can be just as complex as the investigation into the cause of the crash. If any leg of the flight for any passenger involves international travel, then that passenger’s claims will likely be governed by the Montreal Convention or perhaps an earlier version of that treaty. If the crash occurred more than twelve miles from U.S. shores, then the Death on the High Seas Act may limit the damages available. And, even if the crash involves only domestic passengers on a domestic flight, there will still be complex jurisdictional and choice of law issues to be analyzed.

Unfortunately, commercial airliner crash cases also raise additional practical issues with which a victim’s family members must contend. Even though they are experiencing perhaps the toughest time of their lives, family members will often be approached after a crash, directly or indirectly, by some airlines or their representatives, and – unbelievably – by some lawyers or their representatives. Usually, the contacting airlines will want the family to sign some sort of waiver or other agreement in exchange for a small payment. The contacting lawyers, on the other hand, will usually be looking to sign the family up as clients.

If you are a family member of a person who has been killed in a commercial airliner crash, there are a couple of things you should note and take to heart. First, do not sign anything that is given to you by anyone after a crash without first consulting an attorney that you trust and whom you chose . If made in exchange for a waiver or release, the payment offered to you by an airline at that early stage will almost certainly be much less that what you may otherwise be entitled to, and the waiver or release you sign in exchange for that money will probably prevent you from recovering any additional damages.

Second, you should know – and you should inform any attorney that approaches you immediately after a crash that you know – that it is a violation of federal law for an attorney to contact the family members of a crash victim, whether in person, by writing, by email or any other means, before the 45th day following the crash . In other words, you should not receive any sort of solicitation from any attorney within 45 days after the crash. If you do, that attorney has violated the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act and there may be adverse consequences for him or her. You should also know that legitimate disaster relief workers, such as members of the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and government investigators, such as members of the NTSB or FAA, do not recommend lawyers to assist families. If you are approached by a person purporting to be such a worker with an attorney recommendation, be very wary as they are probably not being honest with you.

At Hightower Angelley LLP, we maintain the highest ethical and professional standards and we believe that after a tragedy such as a commercial airliner crash the needs of the victims’ families take precedence over everything else. While we are experienced and skilled in handling such cases, and stand ready to help in any way we can, we will never solicit your case or otherwise disrespect your family or the memory of your loved ones by invading your privacy and disrupting the time you need to grieve and to begin the healing process.