What do you get if you survive a plane crash?. Image 1.

Sophia Warren


What do you get if you survive a plane crash?. Image 2.

Arlin Oritz




The National Institute of Mental Health says that the fear of flying, usually called aviophobia, affects 6.5 percent of the population, or approximately 20 million people. And while these fears are largely unfounded (according to a 2014 ICAO safety report the total number of plane accidents in 2013 was 90 world-wide with only 9 involving fatalities), it does happen. And it's a rather terrifying prospect. 

We wondered about the more practical aspects of this fear. What happens if you die? What can your family recover? What happens if you survive? What are you entitled to?

While most airlines have strict regulations about the information they are willing to give out as it pertains to aviation disasters, a few lawyers, a former flight attendant, and two survivors were more than happy to tell us what they knew about the grim subject.



What do you get if you survive a plane crash?. Image 3.

David Anthony Parker

Associate Attorney at the Law Office of Valentine J. Temrowski in St. Clair Shores, MI  

This is dependent on how the crash occurs. There are many determinations that need to be made in order for a survivor or for a decedent's family member/estate to recover in the event of a plane crash. As we know there are a myriad of reasons why a plane could go down. Some include pilot error, mechanical failure, air traffic control errors, design flaws and even something as simple as a bird flying into the jet engine as we saw in the miracle landing of Pilot Chesley Sullenberger when he landed in the Hudson River right outside of New York City in 2009. 

"Having said that, there are typically two types of damages a survivor or an estate/family member of a decedent can claim: 1) Pecuniary (economic) damages; and 2) Non-pecuniary (non-economic) damages. 

In the first category, pecuniary damages, this includes medical treatment, loss of income and survivor benefits to the injured/deceased's family (e.g. Head of the household gets injured or killed and is responsible for securing income to for household, that may be recoverable for the family)

In the second category, non-pecuniary damages, we see our largest amounts in regards to recovery. Non-pecuniary damages are typically called damages for pain and suffering. This can be allocated to family members of the deceased for their pain and suffering of losing a loved one. Some states allow for pre-impact pain and suffering for the actual individual involved in the crash, which are damages awarded for the person before the plane actually crashes (I think we can all imagine the panic and how terrifying it would be to be on a plane that was going down, and some states feel that is worth damages being awarded to the airline patron). Some states have put a "damage cap" on non-pecuniary damages to limit liability for airliners and only allow for a max recovery of $250,000 or $500,000 for an estate.



More so than most other types of liability cases, plane crash cases are investigation heavy. There is so much data to collect to show how the plane actually went down and whose fault it was (pilot, manufacturers of parts, etc.). There can be apportionments of fault; for example, an airline is 40% at fault for improper inspection or not taking care of a faulty part and the manufacturer is 60% at fault for the actual faulty production of said part. The verdicts/settlements would be apportioned in the same percentage as fault is apportioned. For example, a one million dollar settlement to a passenger in the scenario above, the airline would pay out 400K and the manufacturer 600K.

I would say that many of these laws surrounding plane crash victims and their avenues for recovery are different from state to state, but the consistent theme is usually lengthy litigation, as some cases can take over 5 years before the sides come to an agreement.





What do you get if you survive a plane crash?. Image 4.

Katy Dresner

Detroit-based artist and survivor of a traumatic aviation experience

Last December, my plane to Ft. Lauderdale caught fire shortly after takeoff from DET. After we hit cruising altitude, a strange toxic scent filled the cabin. Within moments of noticing the smell, black smoke engulfed the plane. The emergency lights came on but the oxygen masks did not drop. We needed to do an emergency landing and luckily we were within range of a commuter airport in Toledo.

We waited for nearly 45 minutes on the plane while firemen cleared the area for our exit. We were also told a replacement plane would be coming but there was no telling when. In the terminal, we had access to limited power outlets, one unisex toilet, and a non-working vending machine. After speaking with airline representatives on the phone, I was informed that I could find my own transportation and forfeit my ticket or wait for the replacement plane. They told me that I would not be reimbursed for this extremely traumatic experience but that I could try to speak with another representative the following morning. We were stranded in this abandoned terminal for nearly seven hours. Eventually someone showed up with a box of potato chips and said we each could take one bag.

Every time I tried to contact the airline after this flight, they apologized for the inconvenience but insisted that they would do nothing to compensate my losses, including the cost of a missed night in a hotel, a prearranged car service, and my missed obligations that I was traveling to.

International law requires an airline that has sustained a crash in which there were injuries or deaths to pay each family a bare minimum $176,000 in damages; this is stated in the Montreal Convention of 1999. 



The highest average settlements are in the US, averaging around $4.5 million, compared to Indonesia where the average is $0.4 million. 




What do you get if you survive a plane crash?. Image 5.

David McConnell

Survivor of 1999 plane crash in Hong Kong during a typhoon

In terms of compensation, they gave $5,000 to cover damages, replacement of passport and anguish.

Nothing more.

WITH 78 MAJOR WORLD AIRLINES, your chance of being on a flight which results in at least on fatality is 1 IN 3.4 MILLION.




Paul J. Hanly, Jr.

Partner at Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC


The rights of passengers who survive airline crashes are governed by a large number of varying statutes, common law principles, international treaties and international conventions. The question of what rights a survivor has is determined in part by reference to the place of the crash, identity of the airline (for example if it is owned by a government as opposed to private ownership) and conduct of the operators of the aircraft, among other factors. Generally speaking, survivors have many rights but the size of damages awards is wholly dependent on the answers to the above questions, as well as to whether the passenger survived or died in the crash. Also generally speaking, airlines are not let “off the hook” because of the terms of the contract of passage contained within the airline ticket, except in very narrow circumstances. The best scenario in terms of recovery of damages is on behalf of a passenger injured or killed flying domestically as opposed to internationally.




Anonymous former flight attendant

American Airlines


Plane crash survivors, on American at least, almost always automatically get $10k.



Edited and produced by Mike Sheffield