Sightseeing tour flights normally use small planes and helicopters. Such tours are routinely available in Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Alaska, New York City, Las Vegas and Hawaii (even directly over the mouth of a volcano!), among other locations. Unfortunately, small planes crash far more often than commercial jetliners do, and helicopters crash far more often than small planes do. Add in the time and cost pressures faced by a professional tour operator, and you sometimes end up with a tragedy. When this happens, legal remedies may be available to both injured tourists and grieving relatives of deceased victims.
Causes of Helicopter/Small Plane Crashes
Despite the appearance of safety, a myriad of potential dangers can lead to a small aircraft crash, including:
- Collision with low-altitude objects such as buildings and power lines (especially helicopters)
- Failure to complete pre-flight checks
- Inadequately trained pilots
- Negligent aircraft maintenance
- Flying during poor weather
- Failure of aircraft component or systems
- Onboard fires
- Engine failure
- Overloaded aircraft
- Inadequate fuel or fuel line failure
Regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) govern safety standards for air charter and tour operators. These standards applicable to small aircraft are published in Section 135, Chapter 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. If you can show that the tour operator violated one of these regulations and that the violation was the cause of the crash, you are more likely to win a negligence lawsuit against the tour operator (or you may be able to negotiate a settlement in exchange for agreeing not to initiate or continue a lawsuit).
Even if the tour operator violated no FAA standards, you can still prevail if the tour operator’s acts or omissions failed to meet the elevated standard of “reasonable care” required of a professional. Remember that a tour operator company is legally responsible for the acts of its employees including pilots, maintenance crew and other flight personnel.
Product liability is likely to be the best theory of liability upon which to rely if the tour crash resulted from a mechanical failure of an aircraft component. In a product liability lawsuit, you can sue either the manufacturer or distributor of the aircraft or one of its components (such as the fuel line).
You can win a product liability lawsuit if you can prove that the product was unreasonably dangerous and that it was defectively designed or manufactured, or that the product’s documentation failed to warn of known or reasonably foreseeable dangers. Once you prove this, you will need to prove that the defect actually caused the accident, which is not always an easy task. You don’t have to prove that anyone in particular was negligent or otherwise at fault to win. You can sue the distributor of a helicopter, for example, even for a manufacturing defect.
Personal Injury vs. Wrongful Death
A personal injury lawsuit is generally framed as a negligence lawsuit as described above. If you win you can obtain compensation for medical bills, lost work time, lost earning capacity, miscellaneous expenses arising from the accident, and even intangible psychological losses such as pain and suffering and mental anguish.
A wrongful death lawsuit would be filed by a close relative of someone who died in the sightseeing tour crash, or by the personal representative of the deceased victim’s estate (depending on state wrongful death law). Damages might include funeral and burial expenses, medical bills, lost financial support that the victim would otherwise have provided, reduction in the value of your inheritance, and psychological losses such as grief and loss of companionship.
A lawsuit based on a sightseeing tour plane or helicopter crash can get complex quickly, especially when you are trying to prove the precise nature of a mechanical failure or pilot error, and exactly how it caused the crash. Whether or not you receive an adequate verdict or settlement might turn on whether or not you chose the right aviation accident lawyer to represent you.