Deadly Hot Air Balloon Crash Raises Legal Questions

Sixteen people were killed in a recent central Texas hot air balloon crash in which the balloon reportedly caught fire in the air and crashed. Local authorities say there were no survivors in the incident, which is believed to have occurred as a result of the balloon striking power lines around 7:30 a.m. around 30 miles south of Austin.hotairballoon4

The area is reportedly frequently used for hot air balloon landings, though the activity itself remains relatively rare. A witness who lives near the site described seeing a “big ball of fire.”

If all 16 deaths are affirmed by officials, it will be the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history. Previously, the highest single number of people killed in a hot air balloon accident was six in 1993. Officers found the balloon basket on fire on the ground. A maximum of 16 passengers were allowed on this particular type of balloon. 

Another balloon pilot who knew the one who was reportedly at the helm of this one told CNN he was a “safe, competent pilot” who had been doing this type of work for “a long time.” He had been told that the balloon struck power lines before bursting into flames.

Federal investigators were still trying to piece together the exact sequence of events. Hot air balloon accidents are relatively rare, but only in so far as it’s not a common mode of transportation. One of the few studies on the issue, Hot-Air Balloon Tours: Crash Epidemiology in the United States, 2000-2011, published in the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, revealed there were 78 hot air balloon crashes over the course of a dozen years, resulting in 91 serious injuries. Of those 78 crashes, 43 involved collisions with fixed objects. Trees were No. 1, accounting for 15 incidents, but power lines were No. 2, with 11 incidents.

All of the five fatal crashes that involved paid riders were caused by collision with fixed objects – specifically power lines.

The issue of liability for any subsequent wrongful death cases may depend on a myriad of factors. When you’re in a motor vehicle, you face a host of risks: Crossing deer, drunk drivers, unsafe roads, etc. In airborne accidents, there are really only a few hazards, and most of them are fixed (i.e., trees, power lines, buildings.) With power lines, the risk is especially heightened because there is the added risk of electrocution.

In some cases, electric utilities providers may be held responsible for not insulating, warning about or properly maintaining or de-energizing the wires. But while power lines may be a risk to balloon riders, that doesn’t necessarily mean the utility companies will be at-fault. In the often-cited Coleman v. Windy City Balloons, a federal court in 1987 ruled utility companies don’t have a duty to warn balloonists of power line dangers when that hazard was open and obvious.

Of course, that’s just one case and it isn’t the be-all, end-all last word on the issue.

It’s likely the owner/ operator of the balloon may also be named as a defendant in such a case, but it’s probable that riders signed a waiver of liability. The exact language of that agreement may steer the future litigation. Waivers don’t eliminate the potential for liability, but they could limit it.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Deadly hot air balloon crash raises legal issues, July 31, 2016, By Danny Cevallos, CNN

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