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Extreme turbulence

For many people, experiencing turbulence while in flight can be unnerving. Turbulence sometimes triggers thoughts of emergency situations and plane crashes, but, in reality, emergency landings or crashes are very rare.

On February 13, 2019, one flight experienced some flyers’ greatest fears—having to make an emergency landing because of turbulence. The plane was heading from Southern California to Seattle, but it had to land because of “extreme turbulence” in Reno.

Because of the turbulence, several people were injured, including three that were immediately transported to a local hospital after the landing. A video of the incident shows debris in the aisles and a refreshment cart that toppled over.

Before the flight, the National Weather Service had warned of heavy winds and other intense weather that was moving into the area. They stated that those conditions could create extreme turbulence. However, turbulence is challenging to predict in many circumstances. Turbulence forecasts are available, but they are somewhat generalized, giving large zones of potential areas where turbulence could occur.

The Basics of Turbulence Injuries

Turbulence is the result of air movement. Pilots generally cannot see this air movement, and it can be difficult to detect with accuracy. It often occurs unexpectedly, or a pilot has minimal warning. When a pilot can tell that turbulence is about to affect the plane, he or she has an obligation to warn passengers about the incoming turbulence so they can be prepared.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that an average of 35 people are injured every year in turbulence-related incidents. However, some critics say that that number could be inaccurate because airlines are only required to report events that result in a two-day stay in a hospital. That means that less severe injuries may go unreported altogether, making the actual number of incidents much higher.

Turbulence and Legal Liability

Many people make the mistake of assuming that you have to actually be involved in a plane crash to have a legal claim against an airline. The truth is that you may have a claim any time you are injured on a plane for any reason.

Airlines are “common carriers,” which are entities that provide public transportation for a fee. We put a lot of trust in these people, and, as a result, they are held to a higher standard than the average driver on the road in Southern California. However, just because they have this higher standard does not mean that they are legally responsible for everything that could go wrong on a flight.

Pilots and airline personnel are expected to:

  • Check weather conditions in their designated flight path before leaving the airport
  • Alter flights or delay flights to deal with potential weather issues
  • Adjust the speed of the aircraft to cut down on the effect of the turbulence
  • Warn passengers of potential turbulence, if possible

When pilots or other airline personnel don’t take the precautions they need to keep you, as a passenger, safe, they may have legal liability for your injuries.

On the other hand, if the flight crew does everything they can to prevent injuries and damage, they may not be responsible.

The “Act of God” Defense for Turbulence

Turbulence can occur unexpectedly. In these situations, there may be very little that anyone can do to prepare or warn you in advance. In those situations, the airline may have a valid “act of God” defense. That means that they cannot be responsible for the condition because there was no way for them to know, expect, or plan for it.

While airlines often make this kind of argument, the truth is that there are usually signs or signals that turbulence was going to be a problem on a particular flight. Turbulence forecasts are particularly helpful. If an airline ignored a forecast and sent a plane up when they shouldn’t have, for example, that may result in liability.


These cases are very fact-intensive. If you were injured on a plane, it’s a good idea to talk a personal injury lawyer to determine whether you have legal options. Manibog Law offers free consultations for potential clients for this purpose—let us help you determine if you have a claim and suggest some next steps for you. Call today to schedule your free consultation: 1-800-MANIBOG.

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