Air traffic control is one of the most stressful occupations in the United States, because a single serious error could result in the deaths of hundreds of people. Although air traffic controllers are generally competent and conscientious professionals, plane crashes are occasionally caused by air traffic controller negligence. When this happens, it may be necessary for you to file a claim for damages against the U.S. federal government.
Causes of Air Traffic Controller Negligence
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is responsible for investigating domestic air crashes, and they will not hesitate to identify negligent air traffic control as the cause of a plane crash if appropriate. The most common cause of air traffic controller error is fatigue, because air traffic controllers sometimes work long hours under stressful conditions. Fatigue hampers performance in three main ways – it slows response time, it dulls concentration and, above all, it contributes to poor decision-making. Following are some of the most common air traffic control errors:
- Failure to warn of known hazards such as dangerous weather, power lines and nearby aircraft
- Failure to promptly respond to a pilot
- Improper takeoff clearance
- Failure to promptly respond to a developing emergency
- Failure to clear runways for landings
- Failure to communicate clearly (using slang or non-standard terminology, for example, especially with foreign pilots).
Air traffic control failures are particularly dangerous to small aircraft, whose pilots often detect hazards on a visual-only basis because their planes lack the sophisticated instrumentation possessed by commercial airliners.
Preparing Your Claim
Air traffic controllers must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which extensively regulates air traffic control in the Controller’s Handbook. As such, proof that the air traffic controller violated an FAA regulation is tantamount to proving negligence. An air traffic controller, however, has a duty of “reasonable care”, and he can breach this duty of care even without violating an FAA regulation if his act or failure to act was unreasonable under the circumstances. Once you establish misconduct on the part of the air traffic controller, you will need to show that the misconduct caused or contributed to the plane crash.
You will also need to establish that the accident caused you damages If you were personally injured in the plane crash, showing damages is not particularly challenging — the hard part is proving the exact amount. If the victim died in a plane crash, state wrongful death law allows certain next of kin (or the executor of the deceased victim’s estate) to file a wrongful death lawsuit on their own behalf.
Sovereign Immunity and the Federal Tort Claims Act
Air traffic controllers work for the federal government, and the long-established principle of sovereign immunity asserts that you can’t sue the government without its consent (because any damages awarded would come out of taxpayer’s pockets). The Federal Tort Claims Act, however, allows you to sue the federal government under certain circumstances, subject to certain restrictions.
As long as the air traffic controller was an employee of the federal government, you can file a negligence claim against the government based on the law of the state where the plane crash occurred. Within two years of the crash, you must file an administrative claim with the FAA using Standard Form 95. The government has six months to issue a decision, and if you are unsatisfied with the decision you may appeal to the United States District Court within six months of the decision. You may reach an out-of-court settlement with the government during either phase of this process.
A seasoned aviation lawyer with experience filing claims against the FAA could be an invaluable aid to obtaining fair compensation for an plane crash.