Fatal hot air balloon crash raises new legal questions

Hot air balloon

Following the deaths of all sixteen passengers after a hot air balloon crashed in Texas on Saturday, July 30, 2016, investigators have raised new legal questions concerning liability for balloon accidents. The hot air balloon allegedly caught fire and crashed into an open field, possibly after hitting a power line nearby.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has opened a federal probe of the crash in the hopes of uncovering what exactly happened and how such events can be prevented in the future.

Meanwhile, the answers to legal questions that have arisen since the incident are abundantly unclear: Who is liable for hot air balloon accidents? Are they subject to the same liability laws as aircraft? Is it impossible to determine liability given the nature of navigating a hot air balloon?

Though balloons are technically governed by U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations since they are human-operated, their regulation is often hindered by the fact that they are mostly controlled by the throes of nature.

This has created a host of issues in pursuing a liability claim in this case, and is likely to do so if such accidents happen in the future.

The NTSB has performed investigations into 800 hot air balloon accidents in the United States from 1964 to 2016, noting that 71 of these accidents caused fatalities.

The organization apparently issued a recommendation letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April 2014, warning that the current loose regulations could result in risking a “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident.”

Furthermore, there has been speculation as to how thoroughly hot air balloon operators are trained and vetted. It was recently discovered that the pilot in the recent crash, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, had pleaded guilty to drunk driving charges at least three times between 1990 and 2010, and he also pled guilty to a drug-related charge and served prison time in 2000.

Personal injury attorney Thomas Soldan commented, “Answers to these difficult liability questions are still few and far between. As the NTSB investigation continues, it is likely that more information will come out that will help determine who is responsible for the crash, and what legal measures can be taken to prevent such tragedies in the future.”

Since the crash, advocates for tighter regulations have called for stricter background checks, asking hot air balloon companies take more legal responsibility in ensuring passenger safety.