Who Is Liable in a Skydiving Accident?
Skydiving is an exciting adventure: a rush of adrenaline mixed with a little bit of fear to really get your heart pumping. Many people choose to skydive for special occasions, such as a milestone birthday, an anniversary, or even bachelor/bachelorette parties. Sometimes, however, accidents can happen in the sky. An airplane accident lawyer can help you evaluate your case if something went terribly wrong on your latest skydiving trip.
While most skydiving businesses require all jumpers to sign a waiver relieving them of any responsibility should something go wrong, recklessness on the part of the company can negate that waiver. On the other hand, some waivers are air-tight and relieve the business of faults related to equipment failures and other accidents.
It’s essential to take these waivers seriously before adding your signature. If you’re hurt or killed in a skydiving accident, you may not have legal recourse to take care of your medical bills or your family’s financial needs.
Hawaii skydiving tragedy
The recent skydiving crash that killed 11 people in Hawaii has brought skydiving safety back to the forefront of many people’s minds. One jumper on the flight had 1,200 jumps in his experience, making the tragedy even more confounding to many.
Dubbed the worst civil aviation accident in the country since 2011, the accident involved a plane that had previously stalled in the air in California three years prior. While that incident was determined to be because of pilot error, the National Transportation Safety Board has not yet determined the cause of the crash in Hawaii. It can take up to two years for the NTSB to conduct their full investigation and issue their findings.
In the meantime, many families of those killed are wondering if they have a wrongful death claim, or if the waiver their family members signed overrides any claims. It’s important to know the causes of skydiving accidents, what a waiver of liability entails, and what’s involved with challenging that waiver in court.
Causes of skydiving accidents
There are many causes of skydiving accidents, and most of them are due to simple human errors. A comprehensive investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, published in 2008, looked at the safety of parachute jump operations nationwide. Specifically, it reviewed 32 accidents which occurred between 1980 and 2008. Some of the common factors they found resulting in these accidents include:
- Neglecting pre-flight safety checks
- Incorrect weight and balance calculations
- Inadequate or negligent performance of escape and recovery procedures
- Inadequate or negligent maintenance and inspection of aircraft
- Failure to maintain proper airspeed during flight
- Lack of operation-specific pilot training
- Lack of oversight and enforcement from the Federal Aviation Administration
Other factors include inadequate maintenance, packing, or re-packing of a parachute and reserve parachute, which is supposed to be completed by certified parachute riggers. These certified riggers are also licensed to supervise non-certified personnel packing parachutes.
Waivers are a tricky business, and some courts may find them enforceable, while others may not. In the case of recklessness on behalf of the skydiving company, the court many throw out the waiver in favor of the plaintiff. The burden of proof really relies on the plaintiff’s ability to prove that the skydiving company was purposefully reckless in their duties.
Recklessness means that the owner, pilot, or parachute rigger of the skydiving company consciously, wantonly, or willfully disregarded or was indifferent to the standards of care a “reasonable person would exercise in like circumstances.” The person responsible for the safety of the jumpers knows or should have known that their actions would result in a risk of harm which would be unjustifiable.
Most courts will not honor a waiver in which recklessness is proved because they don’t want to allow businesses or individuals to get away with intentionally causing risks of harm just because there’s a waiver in place. They want to hold businesses and individuals accountable for the safety of the customers in their care.
However, many courts will uphold a waiver if the business or individuals in charge were negligent. In order for a skydiving company or individual to have been negligent in their duties, they must meet five criteria:
1. They were in charge of the safety of the plaintiff
2. They breached that duty of safety
3. The actions of the defendant caused harm to the plaintiff
4. The harm was foreseeable
5. The plaintiff has monetary and/or non-monetary damages resulting from the defendant’s negligence
For instance, if a certified parachute rigger rushed through repacking parachutes, and does not double-check them or take care to repack them carefully before the next jump, he or she may be negligent. They didn’t mean for an accident happen, but they were also derelict in their duties of safety to their customers. In the NTSB’s investigation, they discovered negligent maintenance and inspections of aircraft, which led to some of the accidents.
In most skydiving activity waivers, the skydiving company will ask jumpers to initial clauses in which the jumper promises not to sue the company or an individual from the company based on negligence and release the company from all liability that may result from injuries or death sustained from the jump.
A top personal injury lawyer can help evaluate your case and structure it to prove recklessness, or that the business’ negligence was an example of a pattern of wanton disregard for customer safety.
In Michigan, parents cannot sign these waivers for their children. The only exception to this rule is if a court has appointed the parent or guardian. While most skydiving companies will not take children on jumps, children may still be injured as a result of the actions of the company. If they are taken up on a flight with no intention of jumping or harmed by the activities of the skydiving company while on facility grounds, you may have reason to file a lawsuit even if a court-approved guardian has signed a waiver. If a child is injured in a skydiving-related accident, an airplane accident lawyer can file a suit on their behalf.
Acknowledging the risk
Most waivers will ask you to initial or sign that you understand that skydiving is a dangerous activity that can result in severe bodily injury or even death. The skydiving company does this so that if you or your family do bring a lawsuit against them, they can point to your signature and show that you understood what could happen by participating in a skydive.
If the waiver is too broad and does not specifically outline the potential risks and hazards of skydiving, it may be inadequate to stand up in court. The more specific a waiver is, the more legally binding it is because it can be argued that you knew all the potential dangers of skydiving before you even boarded the plane.
The release of liability in the case of negligence usually binds the waiver. However, if your airplane accident lawyer can successfully prove that the behavior of the company was reckless or wantonly intentional, with total disregard for the risk of harm, it would pose to their customers, that a court can usually void liability release.
Other exceptions to waivers
If a person signs their waiver while they are intoxicated, or mentally incapacitated, then the waiver likely will not hold up in court. A person must be in the proper frame of mind with the capacity to enter into a binding legal contract before boarding the jump plane.
If the contract is signed under duress or undue pressure, it may also be voided. This may happen if there is undue pressure to board the plane quickly, and the instructor or pilot is shouting at people to finish signing their waivers to board. This will likely cause people to quickly skim through the waiver without carefully reading each section and can be considered a form of duress.
Death is not the only result that can happen from skydiving. Bad landings, failed parachute deployments, and human error can all cause injuries such as broken limbs, concussions, knee injuries, and spinal and neck injuries.
If you are pursuing damages against the skydiving company and/or the individuals you believe are responsible for the incident, you will likely have to begin by filing a claim against the company’s insurance policy. All skydiving companies are required to carry insurance for their business. If they are located at an airport, the airport likely carries insurance for their entire property, which may be separate from the skydiving business’ insurance. Individual instructors may carry their own liability insurance policies, much like doctors and nurses carry malpractice insurance.
In Michigan, you can pursue two kinds of compensatory damages for a personal injury claim: economic damages, and non-economic damages.
Economic damages intend to restore the victim to their prior financial state, before the accident and the reckless actions of the skydiving company. Economic damages include:
- medical bills and expenses
- lost wages
- property damages
- cost of care
- transportation services
- loss of income into home (in cases of wrongful death suits)
- other quantifiable monetary costs associated with the accident
Non-economic damages are harder to quantify with a specific dollar amount. These damages include emotional and mental distress, physical pain, and the loss of enjoyment in life. If a person is permanently disfigured or killed in a skydiving accident, these damages become very important to the victim and/or the surviving family members who have to endure the outcome of the accident.
In the legal system, non-economic damages are different from punitive damages. A judge or jury can award punitive damages to punish a company or individual for their actions. Punitive damages are meant to send a message and warn other individuals or businesses of what may happen if they are reckless or negligent in their operations.
Punitive damages are known as “exemplary damages” in Michigan. If a company or individual is proven to have acted maliciously or with complete disregard for the rights of their victims, exemplary damages may be awarded in favor of the plaintiff.
Exemplary damages not only punish the defendant for their egregious actions, but they also compensate the victim because the victim should not have had to suffer in the first place. While a jury might issue a verdict in favor of these damages with a set dollar amount, the judge has the right to reduce the damages in his final ruling. Exemplary damages may be issued to the victim when the victim:
- has suffered harm to their dignity, or has endured humiliation
- the defendant purposely avoided helping to keep the victim out of harm’s way
In Michigan, there are no caps non-economic damages in personal injury (general tort) cases. In medical malpractice or product liability injuries, the state has placed certain limits; however, in personal injury cases, these are not limited. The top personal injury lawyers near you in Michigan can help you navigate the complexities of personal injury torts and help you receive both economic and non-economic damages for your skydiving accident injuries.
If you need to apply for disability as a result of your injuries, disability lawyers at Cochran, Kroll & Associates, P.C. can help you with that complicated process as well.
If you have lost a loved one as a result of a skydiving company’s actions, you may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Unfortunately, death strengthens many civil cases. An airplane accident lawyer at Cochran, Kroll & Associates, P.C. can help you gather the right evidence and structure your case to show that your loved one would still be here if not for the purposefully reckless actions of the skydiving company or individuals.
While skydiving accidents are big news when they happen, they are actually relatively rare. In 2018, of the 3.3 million jumps that took place, only 13 people died. This is the lowest number of fatalities since 2009, suggesting that FAA oversight and safety requirements have been improved across the country. Of those jumps, injuries are closer to 2,500 per year. Skydiving is a dangerous activity, but it doesn’t mean that you should cross it off your bucket list.
Take the time and research the safety record of the skydiving company you are intending to use. If they have a history of many accidents or safety violations, run, don’t walk, the other way. Otherwise, there are many reputable skydiving companies with responsible, certified parachute riggers who are ready to help you experience the pure adrenaline rush that comes with skydiving.
If you have been injured in a skydiving accident or lost a loved one in a skydiving accident, call our law firm today for a no obligation consultation and let us help you review your case at 1-866-MICH-LAW (1-866-642-4529). We never charge a fee unless we make a recovery.