American Airlines made headlines recently when the family of a passenger sued the company for deciding not to make an emergency landing after the passenger suffered a health emergency while the flight was in the air. The family has sued the airline for wrongful death. The case brings a spotlight onto the process airlines follow when a passenger suffers a health crisis mid-flight. How does an airline decide when to make an emergency landing? What is an airline’s potential liability?
The procedures for in-flight medical emergencies
Because airlines are common carriers, they owe their passengers the highest standard of care with respect to safety and health. A passenger injured by an airline’s negligence often has a good cause of action to recover compensation. In-flight medical emergencies can create circumstances where the airline’s employees fail to satisfy the airline’s duty of care and cause a passenger harm.
- Flight crew members are trained in basic first aid. Every airline provides basic health training to its flight attendants so they can identify health emergencies and intervene when necessary. They have basic first aid skills like CPR.
- Final authority rests with the captain. The pilot of a plane is also the commanding officer, and has final say as to whether to make an emergency landing or continue to the flight’s final destination.
- Consultations with ground-based medical experts. Every airline has access to doctors on the ground with whom the captain and crew members will consult during an emergency. As was the case in the American Airlines example, captains often base their decision of whether to land the plane on the advice from these consultants.
- Crew members can check to see if a doctor is on board. If a crew feels that they lack the necessary skills to address an emergency they may ask if there is a doctor among the passengers. Doctors in the United States are ethically, but not legally, obligated to offer assistance during an emergency where the doctor’s expertise can be of assistance. A doctor who offers assistance in such a situation is protected from liability by various laws except in cases of gross negligence. Doctors who provide emergency care in these situations still must comply with other obligations of the profession, such as confidentiality, patient consent requirements, and disclosure rules.
Lawsuits arising from in-flight emergencies
As the American Airlines case shows, injuries suffered due to apparent negligence by an airline’s staff can give rise to lawsuits. As in that case, where the passenger dies due to the airline’s negligence wrongful death may be an appropriate cause of action. If the passenger is still alive but has suffered serious injury, a claim of negligence will be appropriate. To prove negligence the passenger must show that the crew members did something, or failed to do something, that breached the airline’s duty of care toward the passenger and caused the passenger’s injuries.
When a doctor intervenes on a flight and does something that goes beyond ordinary negligence there may be an option of suing the doctor. Gross negligence can be difficult to prove, requiring actions that are completely without regard for the safety of the passenger. That might include a doctor stepping well outside his or her area of expertise to render care: for example, a podiatrist who tries to remove an object from a passenger’s eye.
GGRM is a Las Vegas personal injury law firm
The law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has represented personal injury clients in the Las Vegas area for over 45 years. If you have questions about an injury suffered on an airplane, please give us a call today at 702-388-4476. We can also be reached through our contacts page.