Can You Sue an Airline Over Turbulence?

A dozen passengers from a Hawaiian Airlines flight, which ended with 20 people going to the hospital, are about to find out

An airplane taking off with a blue sky and clouds behind it
If it's not all smooth sailing, what recourse do travelers have?

Turbulence, defined as “irregular atmospheric motion especially when characterized by up-and-down current,” is an inevitable element of air travel. Thus, the answer to “Can you sue an airline over turbulence?” feels like like it should be no.

Yet, per a new report from Paddle Your Own Kanoo, at least a dozen passengers who were onboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu last December when the aircraft was hit by extreme turbulence are planning to sue the carrier because they believe the pilots “failed to heed warnings of bad weather in the area that the turbulence struck.”

This wasn’t a typical bout of minor shaking and rumbling. In fact, the incident made national news after 25 passengers and crew members were injured, six of them seriously so. Upon landing, 20 of those hurt — including a 14-month-old child — were transported to the hospital.

It also bears mentioning that the lawsuit is not over the occurrence of turbulence, but the pilots’ inability to prepare passengers for said turbulence.

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“If [the pilots] were aware of it, then what did they do about it? Did they ask the airline if they could deviate from the flight path? Or, did they just decide that they were going to continue on the flight path that was prepared so that they would remain on schedule?” said attorney Nomaan Husain, who is currently working on the litigation.

“We have clients with broken bones. We have clients with herniated discs. We have clients with neck injuries and back injuries. We have clients with concussions, which have now been diagnosed as mild traumatic brain injury,” he continued.

But that’s the thing. Despite the National Weather Service issuing a severe weather bulletin prior to the flight’s departure, the pilots allege that there was no severe weather on the weather radar before the turbulence struck. Reports dating back to January have the pilots on record saying that a vertical cloud “shot up” like a smoke plume out of nowhere, not allowing for enough time to deviate. I’m no meteorologist, but that is kind of the way weather works, is it not? Further, even when the seatbelt sign is off, you are always advised to stay seated, with your seatbelt fastened, while in the air for exactly this reason.

The investigation is ongoing so who’s to say what new details may reveal. It’s not the first time passengers have sought legal action against an air carrier for turbulence-related incidents. According to the FAA, however, of the millions of people that fly every day, only 30 passengers and 116 crew members were seriously injured because of turbulence from 2009 to 2021.


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