If Turbulence Is Bad Enough, Can You Sue?

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Buckle up.

If turbulence on your flight is bad enough, can you sue? Last weekend, intense turbulence on a Turkish Airlines flight severely injured at least 30 people–including a flight attendant who broke her leg–as it flew over Maine on its way from Istanbul to New York City.

When it finally landed John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) Saturday, 28 people were taken to the hospital to treat cuts, bumps, bruises, gashes, and other injuries. Passengers on the flight told ABC7NY that the turbulence lasted for a violent six minutes. “Because the drop was so sudden, a lot of people got lifted up and hit their head, either on the ceiling or on the side of the plane,” said passenger Amir Mehrbakhsh. In an official statement, Turkish Airlines said that it is “deeply saddened by this unfortunate experience, and closely monitors the health status of injured passengers, and is making resources available to them.”

So, can these passengers sue?

The short answer? It’s complicated. We spoke to David Goguen, Legal Editor at NOLO, who told us that if you suffer in-flight injuries as a result of airplane turbulence you might be able to get compensation from the airline, but “if your injuries happened while you were out of your seat or while you were in your seat without your seat belt on, your claim could face a steep climb.” Airlines could legally claim that you were at fault through “contributory negligence,” a defense that could hold up in court.

“But,” says Goguen, “what if you’re in your seat with your seat belt fastened when turbulence strikes, an overhead bin flies open, and someone’s carry-on suitcase hits you in the head? Now there’s a clearer case for the airline’s liability. You acted reasonably, and it looks like someone else didn’t do their job.”

No matter what happened, however, you should always let the airline know what happened first. “Under federal law, airlines are required to have a passenger complaint submission process in place, and to send a substantive response to all written complaints (including those sent via email or through the airline website) within 60 days,” says Goguen. Include as many details as you can (“Did the flight crew provide any warnings or instructions before the turbulence struck? What did you see, hear, and feel before and throughout the incident? If you received medical treatment as a result of your injuries, provide diagnosis details and any other information that’s relevant.”)

If you don’t hear back, or if they won’t claim responsibility and you believe they should, then it’s time to contact a lawyer.

INSIDER TIPSays Goguen, “Passengers who are injured in-flight while traveling from one country to another might have an easier path to compensation for their losses, thanks to an international treaty (the Montreal Convention) that some aviation law experts say is more passenger-friendly than U.S. law.”

Need even more of a reason to keep this advice in mind?

Turbulence may happen more often in the future. Scientists believe climate change will cause more of this type of violent turbulence, according to a recent report from Forbes. “It is expected to rise 149 percent in the busy North Atlantic flight corridor,” Paul D. Williams, a professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, UK, told the media company. Williams said that in a 2017 study, he found that “the prevalence of transatlantic wintertime clear-air turbulence will increase significantly in all aviation-relevant strength categories as the climate changes.”

Here’s What YOU Can Do to Help Prevent a Turbulence-Related Injury

In order to prevent injuries from unexpected turbulence, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends passengers keep their seat belt buckled throughout the flight’s duration. Also, flyers should pay attention to all safety briefings, use an approved child safety seat (if you have a child and it’s under the age of two), and follow your airline’s carry-on restrictions.