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Small Plane Crashes

While flying in a small plane is statistically safer than driving in a car, accidents do happen, and when they do, they tend to cause serious injuries and death. Consider that for every 100,000 hours flown in private planes, there are 2.3 fatalities. In Washington State alone, there were about 120 small plane accidents between 2020 and 2022 according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). If you or someone you know has been involved in a small plane crash, you’re going to want legal representation to help make sure you get the compensation you need to cover medical bills, lost wages and other costly expenses.

This article provides information about small planes, small plane crashes and seeking legal representation should you or a loved one be involved in a small plane accident. If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact one of our experienced personal injury attorneys.

What is considered a small plane?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a small plane is one with a maximum takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or less and has a capacity of anywhere from 1 to 20 passengers. Made by companies such as Cessna, Piper and others, they are used primarily but not exclusively for private aviation. The many types of private aircraft include single- and multi-engine piston aircraft, personal jets, sport planes, ultralight planes, float planes, bush planes, amphibian planes, aerobatic planes, gliders/sailplanes, and home-built planes, among others. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), there are 304,337 active general aviation (non-commercial) aircraft in the U.S.

Are smaller planes more dangerous than large, commercial aircraft?

Statistics show that you are generally safer flying than driving a car. However, the NTSB does report that private airplanes are far more dangerous than commercial aircraft. The record of commercial flights is that there are fewer than 0.01 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours compared to more than 2.3 fatalities per 100,000 hours flown in private planes. That’s a tremendous increase in risk.

How often do small planes crash?

In 2020, 1,007 private plane accidents were reported in the U.S., although underreporting does occur, and some states do not collect data adequately. In the state of Washington alone, there were about 120 small plane accidents between 2020-2022, according to the NTSB database. The continuously updated Nall Report by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which includes private aircraft accident data, states that there has been ongoing improvement in the rate of small airplane accidents and fatalities. Nevertheless, NTSB statistics reveal that in contrast to the safety record of commercial airplanes, small private planes average five accidents per day, accounting for nearly 500 American deaths in small planes each year.

What type of injuries are common in small plane crashes?

Depending on the size and type of plane, its ability (or lack thereof) to absorb energy from impact with the ground, and many other variables, injuries to pilot and passengers may range from bumps and bruises to death.

In a small plane crash, everyone on board risks head injuries, broken bones and other injuries from impact with the airframe. Injuries can result in limb amputations, major lacerations, severe burns, crushing or drowning (in the case of a water crash). Crash victims may even experience trauma-induced strokes and heart attacks.

The psychological trauma of an airplane crash, whether there have been fatalities or not, may be debilitating and include flashbacks, anxiety and grief. Bystanders, too, may be seriously or fatally injured, especially in emergency landings outside of airports.

What are the common causes of small plane accidents?

Many factors may contribute to a small airplane accident, including pilot experience, aircraft condition and maintenance, engine failure, weather and visibility conditions, unfamiliar terrain, and more. However, the leading cause of small plane crashes is pilot error, which accounts for approximately 75% of accidents. Below is a breakdown of information about small plane accidents.

The most common accidents. The Nall Report states that “although landing accidents continue to remain the leading type of accidents, they account for the lowest number of fatal accidents . . ..” Stall/spin accidents, the report states, account for the largest number of fatal accidents.

Pilot error accidents. According to the FAA’s U.S. Civil Airmen statistics, there are approximately 164,000 certificated private airplane pilots in the U.S., along with about 280,000 student pilots.

Despite the FAA’s certification requirements, a relatively inexperienced pilot may be unable to manage the complexity of piloting a small plane with many opportunities for mistakes. For example, the requisite preflight inspection covers many critical components of the aircraft, and treating this inspection as a nuisance or obstacle to getting the plane in the air quickly may cause a pilot to miss a mechanical problem. Inexperienced pilots may be especially prone to overlooking problems and consider their aircraft airworthy when it is not. Such an oversight can be counted as pilot negligence when determining the cause of an accident. In addition, during descent and landing, the pilot has much more to attend to than when the plane is in level flight. Pilots may make dangerous decisions during takeoff, landing or mid-flight that can cause an accident or crash. He or she may even operate the plane in an unsafe manner, ending in a serious crash where others suffer injury or die.

Mechanical errors and defective part accidents. Mechanical error from defective parts is rare but can occur, most likely as a result of poor maintenance or sloppy upkeep of maintenance records. However, a USA TODAY investigative report in 2014 “found wide-ranging defects have persisted for years as manufacturers covered up problems, lied to federal regulators and failed to remedy known malfunctions.” The report cited repeated instances in which crashes, deaths and injuries were caused by defective parts and dangerous designs. Hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements were paid by manufacturers, and civil court judges and juries have found major manufacturers liable for deadly crashes.

Other significant accident causes. Weather—such as hail, turbulence, lightning, and sudden downbursts and microbursts—is also a major factor in accidents, with thunderstorms, which may occur suddenly, being the most dangerous, especially to highly vulnerable small planes. Add the possibility of bird strikes and airport traffic or less-than ideal runway conditions (including ground traffic), and the opportunities for accidents are everywhere.

How is fault in a small plane crash determined?

The NTSB has primary authority to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States. The agency is often accompanied by an FAA inspector, or an FAA inspector may be gathering information on behalf of the NTSB. The operator of an aircraft must immediately notify the nearest NTSB Field Office when an aircraft accident occurs. The NTSB’s report provides details about the accident, analysis of the factual data, conclusions and the probable cause of the accident. Most reports focus on a single accident, though the NTSB also produces reports addressing issues common to a set of similar accidents.

While discovering what caused a small plane accident may be determined by the NTSB, discovering who is to blame is another matter and critical to determining liability. This is part of the process an experienced attorney such as those at PCVA must engage in to pursue a liability claim. The at-fault party is likely someone connected to the piloting, ownership, manufacture or maintenance of the plane. The attorney must prove the existence of any elements of negligence, connect causation to liability and pursue the claim against the at-fault party.

What are common types of small plane crash lawsuits?

The most common grounds for a small plane crash lawsuit are negligence, wrongful death, product liability and (occasionally) federal tort.

Negligence. If an airplane accident is caused by pilot error (the most common), poor maintenance or other provable human error, an injured party or family member may be able to file a lawsuit based on negligence. In Washington, a plaintiff claiming negligence as the cause of a small plane accident must prove that the defendant owed a duty of care as a “reasonable person” and that there was actual harm that would not have occurred without the defendant’s breach of that duty.

Wrongful death. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff—typically a family member such as a surviving spouse or child—must prove that the defendant was responsible and thus liable for the accident. The plaintiff in a successful lawsuit may receive compensation for such losses as medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, and even the loss of companionship.

Product liability. A successful product liability claim must prove that some defect in the plane or any of its components caused the crash. For example, defects may include a defect in the design of the plane, an error in manufacturing the plane or a marketing defect, such as a lack of proper warnings or instructions.

Federal tort. It may be possible to sue the federal government if an error on the part of an FAA employee, such as an air traffic controller, fails to perform his or her duties properly. Complex rules and procedures apply when suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FCTA). The attorneys at PCVA are familiar with the process and know how to guide a client through the maze.

Who’s liable for an aircraft maintenance failure?

Failure to ensure proper maintenance can have a direct impact on an accident. Responsibility for ensuring a small plane’s maintenance may fall to the pilot if he or she owns the plane, the manufacturer if the manufacturer is responsible for making repairs, the owner if other than the pilot or an independent maintenance company.

The most-often sued party in maintenance failures is the manufacturer, which if proved negligent may be liable for serious damages. The owner must ensure that parts are in the proper upkeep and replaced as necessary, as well as changing out anything that is defective or that could lead to a malfunction. If a third party or an independent company maintains the plane, an injured plaintiff’s lawsuit may be directed to that entity if it appears that the lack of maintenance caused the accident.

Some lawsuits can connect an accident to multiple liable parties, and a claim can be pursued against them all if there is sufficient evidence to do so. The bottom line: A standard duty of care is owed to small plane passengers, and any breach of that standard can lead to a possible valid claim.

What happens after I am involved in a small airplane accident?

NTSB experts have primary responsibility for determining the cause of an accident, but making this determination is complex and can take time. If your own insurance policies (accidental death, etc.) apply in a plane crash, the insurance company will be eager to learn the cause. It’s always a good idea to contact your own insurance agent before flying in a small plane to check your coverage in the event of an accident.

Determining and explaining your rights is the job of experienced attorneys such as those at PCVA. Your case will likely progress through the state courts or in settlement negotiations to ensure the best possible outcome.

Is insurance required for small airplanes?

Aircraft owners are not required to maintain aviation liability insurance in the State of Washington. Lending institutions that finance aviation loans, however, will require both liability insurance and physical damage insurance, and aircraft owners who have a hangar or tie-down rental agreement or lease will usually have a condition in the contract with the airport and/or hangar owner to maintain liability insurance.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated that between 80% and 90% of aircraft owners in the general aviation community purchase some level of aircraft lability insurance. In the event of an accident, an insurer may be liable for personal injury and property damages. PCVA attorneys are experienced in pursuing insurance claims resulting from small plane accidents.

How long do I have to file a lawsuit following a small plane crash?

In the State of Washington, you generally have three years from the time of injury to file a lawsuit. If the plaintiff was under the age of 18 when injured, however, the three-year limitation will not begin until the plaintiff reaches 18 years of age.

What should I look for in a Washington small plane crash lawyer?

The short answer is experience, sensitivity and aggressiveness. PCVA’s attorneys have successfully handled personal injury, wrongful death and product liability cases for years and recovered many millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts.

Our attorneys have undergone professional training on how to work with individuals who have been subjected to trauma to prevent re-traumatization. When you work with us, know that you are working with an advocate who represents you with the utmost empathy and care.

Equally important, we are relentless advocates and will not rest until justice is achieved. In the case of small plane crashes, making a connection between the injury and a breach of the duty of care owed to the passenger is critically important, so the lawyer you engage should be skilled and experienced in connecting the negligence elements of both liability and causation. The attorneys at PCVA have that experience.

How can PCVA help if you are injured in a small plane accident?

Accidents change lives. You may be in a lot of pain because of the injuries you have suffered, and those injuries and their pain may last a lifetime. You may be feeling stress and grief after the accident, especially if you’ve lost a loved one. Beyond the physical and emotional toll of an airplane accident, there is the financial impact. You may face expensive medical bills, and you may not be able to work for either the short or long term.

The experienced attorneys at PCVA can help you understand your options for pursuing compensation and damages from those responsible for the airplane accident. We will assess the value of your case, handle all negotiations and fight to make sure you get the compensation you deserve. If you would like to speak with a PCVA lawyer, complete our online form or call us at (253) 777-0799 or (206) 462-4334.

How Much Does PCVA Charge?

Our work is done on a contingency basis. This means that you do not pay us on an hourly basis, and we advance the costs of litigation. If we help you resolve your case, we receive a percentage of the amount you receive and you reimburse us for the costs we advanced on your behalf.