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Deadliest Hot Air Balloon Accident on Record Raises Some Liability Questions

On July 30th, 2016 a hot air balloon crashed in Texas killing all 16 passengers on board. The accident is the deadliest of its kind on record in the Western hemisphere. Though the crash is still under investigation, officials believe the cause of the accident was due to contact with power lines. This unfortunate occurrence has raised some unique legal concerns and questions.

Hot air balloon crashes are not very common, and the resulting injuries and/or fatalities are usually low due to capacity limitations. According to data compiled in 2011, in the 11 years preceding the study a total of 78 crashes were documented. There were five fatalities and 91 people injured a result of these crashes. It’s easy to see why the legal guidelines in such a unique situations are not well formed- the circumstances and causes in each of these accidents vary greatly.

Of the hot air balloon crashes on record, the cause of the accidents include collisions with power lines and trees. Also noted as causes for accidents include avoidance of stationary or fixed objects- including powerlines. So in cases like these, how does one address liability?

Hot air balloons are technically considered aircraft and as such are governed by Federal Aviation Regulations. Even though they are being controlled to a certain degree by man, they are also subject to acts of God- including wind gusts and inclement weather that may cause a loss of control. In this way, they are similar to more standard aircraft- airplanes and helicopters- that are more commonly involved in personal injury lawsuits.

However, outside of an airplane or helicopter pilot encountering technical or mechanical issues they aren’t often thrown off course or find themselves in a position requiring sudden avoidance to prevent impact as is the case with hot air balloons. In commercial airplane accidents, liability is clearly established. If negligence on behalf of the airline is established, they are responsible for damages.

The investigators in charge of determining the final cause of the accident that resulted in the death of all 16 people on board will be looking into the balloon itself, the pilot operating it, and the environment near the crash site. Looking at these factors will help determine not only cause but also, liability.

Based on evidence collected so far, investigators believe that the pilot was likely in his final decent intending to land; the crew on the ground reported that the pilot used an app to send them his intended landing coordinates which he usually does right before landing. Immediately afterward, they lost contact. Investigators are still trying to determine whether the fire that burned most of the gondola broke out prior to, or as a result of, impact with the powerlines.

In order to prove negligence in this scenario, there would need to be evidence that the balloon failed recent safety inspections and was deemed airworthy anyway, or there would need to be documented concerns regarding the pilot and his ability to successfully man the aircraft. While this issue is still very much under investigation, we are anticipating many more questions to arise as it pertains to liability.