Understanding potential liability in Alaska aviation accidents

In July of 2012, former Alaska State Representative Cheryll Heinze died from injuries she sustained in a small-plane crash during a fishing trip. The Cessna 206 in which the 65-year-old was riding crashed while landing on a southern Alaska lake. The other four passengers escaped with only minor injuries. Though the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has preliminarily ruled the crash to be an accident, the exact cause of this tragedy remains unknown.

Strong wind was blowing across Beluga Lake when the pilot tried to bring the small plane in for a water landing. At some point during the landing, though, the plane flipped over, trapping Ms. Heinze inside. By the time Heinze was pulled free, the plane was completely under the water, and she had been submerged for several minutes. Still alive when pulled from the wreckage, she was rushed to a local hospital but passed away several hours later.

The pilot, 71-year-old Joe Griffith, was a well-known Alaskan businessman and a former military pilot. He served multiple tours in Vietnam and was an Air Force fighter weapons instructor as well as a flight wing commander. According to an NTSB official who spoke to Griffith about the accident, the plane showed no mechanical irregularities before the accident. Griffith said that a strong wind flipped the plane just after it touched down on the water.

Less than a week after the small plane crashed, the NTSB released a preliminary report saying, "The pilot reported that while landing to the south, just after touchdown, a gust of wind lifted the left wing, and the right wing struck the water." The report continued that "the airplane nosed over abruptly, and the cabin immediately filled with cold lake water." Pilot error was ruled as a contributing factor since Griffith had estimated wind gusts on the lake at only 12 to 14 knots when they were actually measured as high as 25 to 30 knots.

The causes of aviation accidents

A plane, glider, balloon or other aviation accident can be caused by a number of factors. Weather, mechanical or maintenance issues and human error could all play a role. Moreover, a manufacturer's poor design or a manufacturing defect could create a dangerous or deadly situation. Nevertheless, aircraft owners and pilots owe a duty of care to their passengers, and all working aircraft should be properly maintained and inspected regularly for mechanical issues.

If the weather is more than the pilot or plane is equipped to handle the pilot should refuse to fly, turn around or find a safe landing place as soon as feasible. If a pilot is negligent in his or her duty toward passengers, even in difficult weather, they or their employer could be sued for the resulting injuries or deaths. A manufacturer may face a lawsuit if there was a design or manufacturing defect. The aircraft's owner or pilot (or both) could be sued if they did not properly maintain the aircraft.

If you have been injured - or have tragically lost a loved one - in an Alaska aviation accident, speak with a skilled personal injury attorney in your area to learn more about your legal rights and options.