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An Introduction to Aviation Disasters and Plane Crash Litigation

When a person has been seriously injured or killed in a small private plane crash or a commercial airline crash, family members will be looking for an experienced attorney to handle their aviation accident lawsuit. The law firm of Leesfield & Partners has the knowledge, expertise and resources necessary to handle complex aviation cases successfully. Aircraft accidents require a specialized investigative skill and extensive knowledge of aviation law. One of our trial attorneys, Mark A. Sylvester, is a licensed pilot who has successfully handled many aviation cases.

Representative Verdicts and Settlements
in Aviation Cases


$ 10,000,000

Est. of Rivas
$ 8,575,000

Est of Emmart
$ 5,400,000

Estate of G. (confidential)
$ 2,800,000

Est. of Barley
$ 1,850,000

Our attorneys work with a team of accident investigators and aviation accident specialists investigating crash sites and recreating accidents to identify the causes of airplane crashes. We have obtained verdicts and settlements for pilots, passengers, and innocent bystanders in cases involving defective aircraft parts, negligent air traffic controllers, and other negligent parties. For a complete list of the firm's representative results, go to our Verdicts and Settlements section.The following are among the types of lawsuits in airplane crash, airline disaster, runway incursion and other aviation mishap cases:

FAA and Air Traffic Controler Error: The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the certification of aircraft and its components, the licensing of pilots and other aircrew, and for the surveillance of aircraft while in flight. A breach of these duties may be actionable under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Experienced counsel must likewise examine the role of the FAA in any given case.

Several cases have involved negligence of air traffic control personnel which recognize that the government has consented to be sued for the negligence of its controllers taking their control of aircraft in the air, when landing, taking off or taxiing at airports. Many cases involving the negligence of Air-Traffic Controllers relate to the negligent guiding of pilots of small airplanes into bad weather including fog, storms in formation, or tornadic weather. Once the government undertakes to provide such service, it must exercise due care and will be responsible if it failed to utilize such care.

Air Traffic Control
For those pilots flying IFR, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established an air traffic control system to maintain and coordinate the safe flow of air traffic. Just as automobiles use roads to travel from city-to-city and ships use sea lanes to cross the ocean, these airplanes depend on airways to reach their destinations. Thousands of these invisible paths cris-cross the nation's airspace.

To understand Air Traffic Control, one must understand that there are different types of Air Traffic Controllers, each of whom has different responsibilities. Almost everyone is familiar with the towers located at many airports, particularly the larger and busier ones, however, this is but one feature of the air traffic control system. In addition to the Tower, there are Approach/Departure Control, Air Route Traffic Control Centers, and personnel who provide weather information and traffic flow management.

A. Tower
A Tower Controller’s responsibility is to aircraft taking off, landing, and taxing at an airport, and to vehicles driving on critical parts of the airport. This means they have control of the aircraft maneuvering on the ground and flying in the immediate vicinity of the airport (usually within a few miles). Tower controllers primarily work by being able to see the aircraft under their control, hence they work in a room with large windows at the top of a tower.

The ground controller directs the plane to the proper runway. The local controller then informs the pilot about conditions at the airport, such as weather, speed and direction of wind, and visibility. The local controller also issues runway clearance for the pilot to take off.

B. Approach/Departure Controllers
During arrival, several controllers direct each plane. As a plane approaches an airport, the pilot radios ahead to inform the terminal of the plane’s presence. The controller in the radar room, just beneath the control tower, has a copy of the plane’s flight plan and already has observed the plane on radar. If the path is clear, the controller directs the pilot to a runway; if the airport is busy, the plane is fitted into a traffic pattern with other aircraft waiting to land. As the plane nears the runway, the pilot is asked to contact the tower. There, another controller, who also is watching the plane on radar, monitors the aircraft the last mile or so to the runway, delaying any departures that would interfere with the plane’s landing. Once the plane has landed, a ground controller in the tower directs it along the taxiways to its assigned gate. The ground controller usually works entirely by sight, but may use radar if visibility is very poor.

The opposite occurs during departure. Approach controllers are responsible for the safety of aircraft making an approach to an airport and for aircraft departing from airports, typically within 50 miles of an airport and up to an altitude of 10,000 feet. This is generally done through the use of radar. Once in the air, the plane is guided out of the airport’s airspace by the departure controller.

C. Air Route Traffic Control Centers (En Route Traffic Control)
After each plane departs, airport tower controllers notify en route controllers who will next take charge. There are 20 air route traffic control centers located around the country, each employing 300 to 700 controllers, with more than 150 on duty during peak hours at the busiest facilities. Airplanes usually fly along designated routes; each center is assigned a certain airspace containing many different routes. En route controllers work in teams of up to three members, depending on how heavy traffic is; each team is responsible for a section of the center’s airspace. A team, for example, might be responsible for all planes that are between 30 and 100 miles north of an airport and flying at an altitude between 6,000 and 18,000 feet.

To prepare for planes about to enter the team’s airspace, the radar associate controller organizes flight plans coming off a printer. If two planes are scheduled to enter the team’s airspace at nearly the same time, location, and altitude, this controller may arrange with the preceding control unit for one plane to change its flight path. The previous unit may have been another team at the same or an adjacent center, or a departure controller at a neighboring terminal. As a plane approaches a team’s airspace, the radar controller accepts responsibility for the plane from the previous controlling unit. The controller also delegates responsibility for the plane to the next controlling unit when the plane leaves the team’s airspace.

The radar controller (“R-Side”), who is the senior team member, observes the planes in the team’s airspace on radar and communicates with the pilots when necessary. Radar controllers warn pilots about nearby planes, bad weather conditions, and other potential hazards. Two planes on a collision course will be directed around each other. If a pilot wants to change altitude in search of better flying conditions, the controller will check to determine that no other planes will be along the proposed path. As the flight progresses, the team responsible for the aircraft notifies the next team in charge of the airspace ahead. Through team coordination, the plane arrives safely at its destination.

D. Flight Service Personnel
In addition to airport towers and en route centers, air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations operated at more than 100 locations. These flight service specialists provide pilots with information on the station’s particular area, including terrain, pre-flight and in-flight weather information, suggested routes, and other information important to the safety of a flight. Flight service specialists help pilots in emergency situations and initiate and coordinate searches for missing or overdue aircraft. However, they are not involved in actively managing air traffic.

E. Center Weather Service Unit and Traffic Management Unit
The Air Route Traffic Control Centers contain specialized personnel in the field of meteorology and traffic management. The Center Weather Service Unit, consisting of meteorologists and weather coordinators, is responsible for maintaining current and forecasted weather phenomena that may affect the center’s airspace and surrounding areas. Meteorologists track and forecast weather conditions and report these conditions to the control room floor. The controllers then in turn, plan and project their traffic flows and react accordingly. This weather unit is equipped with Doppler Radar and other weather tracking equipment and an extensive communications network. The Traffic Management Unit is the entity in ARTCCs and designated terminals directly involved in the active management of all facility traffic. They are broadly responsible for all traffic passing through the Center’s airspace.

Aviation Weather
Weather is one of the most significant issues affecting aviation and the provision of air traffic control services. As discussed, weather is so significant that the FAA created Center Weather Service Units staffed by National Weather Service meteorologists to provide real-time weather information and forecast weather information that may effect aviation. The meteorologists at the Center Weather Service Units throughout the country use a variety of devices to collect and disseminate weather information.

Weather and Radar Processor - WARP
At Miami Center, the Weather and Radar Processor (WARP) is the primary data acquisition source for the Center Weather Service Unit. This system is connected to the vast data base of the National Weather Service. With the WARP system, the CWSU has access to such forecasting tools as, NEXRAD, GOES and Meteosat satellite imagery, regional and national radar mosaics, surface and upper air observations, numerical weather models and other data. All data can also be animated and if need be a hard copy can be generated and annotated for the controllers to use at their positions.

NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar) is one of the key sources of weather information processed by the WARP system and used by the CWSU meteorologists to provide real-time weather information to air traffic controllers. NEXRAD is a form of Doppler radar. Most people are familiar with Doppler radar from watching their local news channel. The local news typically displays weather in varying colors overlayed on an image of the city, county, or State.

NEXRAD detects precipitation and atmospheric movement or wind. In simplified terms, it works as follows: A burst of energy is emitted from the radar. If the energy strikes an object (rain drop, bug, bird, etc), the energy is scattered in all directions. A small fraction of that scattered energy is directed back toward the radar, in what are called echoes. This reflected signal is then received by the radar during its listening period. Computers analyze the strength of the returned pulse, time it took to travel to the object and back, and phase shift of the pulse. The ability to detect the “shift in the frequency”of the pulse of energy makes NEXRAD a Doppler radar. The frequency of the returning signal typically changes based upon the motion of the raindrops or weather returns. This process of emitting a signal, listening for any returned signal, then emitting the next signal, takes place very fast, up to around 1300 times each second.

The data which is reflected back toward the radar is then processed and displayed in a mosaic map which shows patterns of precipitation and its movement in different colors. This is the “reflectivity” product. The intensity of the reflected product is measured in in dBZ (decibels of z). As the strength of the signal returned to the radar increases the dBZ values increases and the colors change.

There is a direct correlation between the radar weather echo intensity level (dBZ) and the degree of turbulence and other weather features associated with thunderstorms. The higher the intensity level, the greater the turbulence and the more severe the weather phenomena.

As it relates to aviation weather, the National Weather Service has categorized radar weather echo intensity into six levels. These levels are often expressed during communications with aircraft as “VIP Level” 1 through 6 (derived from the component of the radar that produces the information—Video Integrator and Processor).

Severe Weather Advisories
In the presence of severe weather, the CWSU issues advisories that are disseminated to the traffic management unit and the air traffic controllers. These advisories include SIGMETs, Convective SIGMETs, Center Weather Advisories (CWA) AIRMETS, and Urgent Pilot Weather Report (UUA).

A Center Weather Advisory (CWA) is an unscheduled weather advisory issued by Center Weather Service Unit meteorologists for Air Traffic Control (ATC) use to alert pilots of existing or anticipated adverse weather conditions within the next 2 hours.

A SIGMET is a weather advisory issued concerning weather significant to the safety of all aircraft. SIGMET advisories cover severe and extreme turbulence, severe icing, and widespread dust or sandstorms that reduce visibility to less than 3 miles.

A Convective SIGMET is a weather advisory issued by NOAA’s aviation weather center. They describe convective weather significant to the safety of all aircraft. Convective SIGMETs are issued for tornadoes, lines of thunderstorms, embedded thunderstorms of any intensity level, areas of thunderstorms greater than or equal to VIP level 4 with an area coverage of 4/10 (40%) or more, and hail ¾ inch or greater.

Convective SIGMETs are issued specifically for thunderstorms that will impact aviation operations. They are issued hourly and are valid for 2 hours. The word "convective" means thunderstorms.

Sources of Weather Information Available to the Air Traffic Controller Air traffic controllers have a plethora of sources from which to gather weather information to provide to pilots.

Stand-Up Briefings: At the beginning of each shift, the Weather Coordinators (See CWSU) provide a weather briefing to the area supervisors, who in turn are supposed to relay pertinent weather information to the Air Traffic Controllers.

CWSU/TMU: The Center Weather Service Unit and the Traffic Management Unit provide real-time weather information to the air traffic controllers. They have access to extensive data bases that provide a host of weather related information. The meteorologists and staff working in these units can be contacted directly by the Air Traffic Controllers or by the area supervisors.

Radar Scope: ARTCC radar systems have the capability to display areas of weather that are associated with precipitation. The system provides the controller with two distinct levels of weather intensity by assigning symbols for specific precipitation densities measured by the system. The intensity of the weather displayed is based on the density of the precipitation. Areas of high-density precipitation are represented by “H” symbols and “L” or radial lines indicate lower density precipitation.

Weather Monitors: There are numerous monitors located throughout the air traffic control facility that depict real-time weather images from the National Weather Service. Several of these monitors are located within site of the air traffic controller’s radar station. Air Traffic Controllers need only to turn their head to view the monitor a few feet away.

Operational Supervisor: Each air traffic controller works directly under an operational supervisor. The operational supervisor is available to obtain and provide the air traffic controllers with additional weather information upon request.

Flight Service Personnel: Air Traffic Controllers can use the phones located at their radar stations to contact flight service personnel to obtain detailed weather information.

Posted Weather Advisories: When weather advisories are posted, they are printed out on a sheet of paper at the air traffic controller’s radar station. This includes CWAs, SIGMETs, and the like.

Mechanical Failure Claims: The plaintiff may have to establish that the pilot's negligence contributed to the accident or that a mechanic negligently failed to detect or properly repair a component of the plane. These cases may be brought against the common air carrier or the owner of the private plane. If a mechanical failure results from a defect in the design or construction of an airplane or a component of the airplane, the plaintiff may establish a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the component or the airplane. In a products liability claim based on defective construction or manufacturing, the plaintiff must establish that the manufacturer of the component that caused the accident failed to detect a defect in the particular component that was used in the airplane that had the accident.

Defective Product Claims: An aircraft manufacturer may be liable for negligently designing or assembling this product. The choice of materials, the quantity and quality of testing and analysis, the adequacy or inadequacy of maintenance instructions, and any representations or warnings as to the use or abuse of the product may each constitute a theory upon which release can be granted. These represent a unique hurdle for a plaintiff, in that the plaintiff must establish that the manufacturer could have used a reasonable, alternative design that would have prevented the injury. A plaintiff might incur great expense in pursuing a products liability case based on defective design. In order to establish a reasonable, alternative design the plaintiff will likely have to hire an engineer or other expert to critique the manufacturer's design and to suggest the alternative design. A products liability case faces a better chance for success if prior cases have already established that the design of the component is defective.

Pilot or Employee Error: If pilot or employee error contributed to or caused an airplane crash, runway accident or other aviation accident that causes a passenger injury, that passenger can maintain a suit not only against the pilot for his or her error, but also against the pilot's employer, the airline. In effect, employees acting in their capacity as employees "stand in" for the airline. Thus, an employee's error is the airline's error because under a legal doctrine known as "respondeat superior," the high degree of care required of a common carrier extends to its employees, including pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics.

The National Transportation Safety Board has estimated that approximately 83% of all general aviation accidents are attributable to pilot error. Thus, in some cases involving injuries to passengers, bystanders or property loss, the pilot, his estate and/or employer could be primarily at fault. Whether there was negligent preflight of the aircraft, negligent flight planning, inadequate flight experience for conditions, or other error must all be considered by counsel.

Private Aircraft Accidents

General aviation or private aircraft accidents represent the largest number of aviation accidents in the United States and ... the world. These airplanes are particularly vulnerable to weather, poor maintenance, inadequate inspections and repairs, defective design, and human error. Recently, our firm handled a private airplane crash in which a mother and her son were killed when their single‑engine airplane crashed in severe weather. Our firm represented the families in a wrongful death action against the Federal Aviation Administration for the failure of their Air Traffic Controllers to provide pertinent and observed severe weather information to the pilot. In addition, legal action was taken against the manufacturer of a component part that powered the flight instrumentation as well as the airplane manufacturer and a service facility. Our attorneys were able to secure a multi-million settlement with the defendants on behalf of the families. For a complete list of the firm's representative results, go to our Verdicts and Settlements section.

Commercial Aircraft Accidents

Commercial common carrier accidents occur in a variety of different situations. While the most common aviation accidents are those involving commercial airlines, many accidents occur with private airplanes, as well as commercial and private helicopters. A general overview of aviation law can inform passengers of their rights in cases of accidents involving all types of aircraft.

The leading causes of commercial airline accidents include engine failures, controlled flight into terrain, approach and landing, loss of control, runway incursions, and weather (including turbulence). Private or "general" aviation accidents find their causes in controlled flight into terrain, weather, pilot decision‑making, loss of control, and runway incursions.

What is a Runway Incursion?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines a runway incursion as "any occurrence at an airport involving an aircraft, vehicle, person, or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in loss of separation with an aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing, or intending to land." Many assume that once a plane has safely landed all potential danger is gone. Unfortunately, statistics show otherwise. Since 1993 the number of runway incursions has increased over 70%. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) considers this increase in runway incursions one of the ten most significant safety issues facing air travelers today.

A number of factors can cause runway incursions including pilot error (proceeding into unauthorized areas such as closed runways or taxiways), air traffic controller error (transmitting misinformation to pilots regarding ground maneuvers), and ground personnel errors (deviations by baggage carts, fuel trucks, maintenance vehicles, etc.). The consequences of runway incursions range from minor aircraft or vehicle damage to catastrophic loss of life.

Who investigates airplane crashes, runway incursions and other aviation disasters?

Depending on the circumstances surrounding the accident, the investigation is conducted by one or more of the following agencies: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). But, accident investigations may also involve foreign or local authorities or the Departments of Justice, State and/or Defense. Agencies such as the American Red Cross, Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency may also be involved in providing services to victims and their families. Depending on the circumstances of any given crash, other agencies may also be involved.

Unlike civilian or commercial airplane crashes that are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), military airplane crashes and runway incursions are under the jurisdiction of the Military Safety Mishap Board. This organization prepares a secret report much of which is not released to the public. Another Report, also called a Collateral report may be prepared depending on the service branch involved. This report is usually made public, but doesn't contain the manufacturer's analysis or witness statements that are the basis of the secret Safety Mishap Investigation. This lack of information greatly complicates the task of bringing a lawsuit and finding answers.

Helicopter Accidents

Our attorneys have also recovered millions of dollars in award and compensatory damages for our clients who were victims of helicopter accidents due to piloting error, lack of maintenance, or defective design.

DeCenzo: This case involved the wrongful death of a 30 year-old co-pilot, killed in the crash of a Lockheed Hercules L-382 at Kelley Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas. The crash occurred on take-off. The decedent left a 29 year-old wife and two minor children. Leesfield & Partners filed a lawsuit against officers of Southern Air Transport for gross negligence and against the manufacturer of the plane, and the owner/lessor of the plane, on product liability theories.

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation revealed that a non-approved control block probably became wedged in the controls. According to the cockpit voice recorder, immediately after take-off, the captain detected control problems and within just a few seconds determined the cause and removed the wedge block. The plane was in a steep climb, and as a result of the wedged block, the crew could not recover in time. This lawsuit yielded a $10,142,612 verdict for Plaintiffs.

Estate of Rivas: This case involved the untimely death of Mr. Rivas, a husband and a father., living behind a young wife and a newborn son. This lawsuit was filed against the airline/owner of the aircraft. The thorough investigation uncovered that the aircraft owned, controlled and maintained by the airline had been negligently maintained in violation of several Airworthiness Directives:

The Aircraft crashed because eits exhaust valves were stuck in the Open position. Microscopic and chemical analysis of the engine’s exhaust valve stems and intake valve stems unequivocally demonstrated the presence of excessive buildup of exhaust gas deposits and wear metal accumulation on all four exhaust valves, but particularly on exhaust valves. This condition caused the valves to stick and become inoperable. Photos of the valve stems clearly demonstrated the poorly maintained condition of these valves. The chemical analysis of these buildups showed the presence of metallic elements and compounds due to excessive wear between valve stems and valve guides. As a consequence of the building and negligent maintenance of the aiurcraft, the engine lost power and failed in flight due to the stuck condition of the exhaust valves.

The aircraft also crashed because it was not airworthy and was not maintained in accordance with Air Worthiness Directives, the manufacturer’s mandatory service bulletin 388B; and various service instructions.

It was apparent from the aircraft records and from the condition of the engine’s exhaust and intake valves that the maintenance deficiencies had obvious and detrimental effects, both physical and chemical, on the condition and functioning of this aircraft’s engine, which ultimately were compounding causes for this plane to crash. This case settled out of court.

To contact one of our experienced trial lawyers call our Miami law office today at 800-836-6400 or click here for a free and full case evaluation.

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