Hot Air Balloon Accidents

The hot air balloon crash in Texas yesterday resulted in a tragic loss of life.  News is still emerging on the cause of the accident and it will likely take some time for authorities and experts to figure out exactly what happened.  Hot air balloon crashes are similar to airplane crashes in that they are often complicated because their origins could be human error, product defect, or a combination of factors.  It is extremely important to the loved ones and the family members of the deceased in these situations to figure out the cause of the accident.  While some accidents occur with no explanation there is often a root cause that can be ascertained through investigation.  Two common causes in hot air balloon and aviation accidents are product defects that lead to the accident and pilot error.

Hot air balloons have three main parts.  They have the balloon that contains the hot air that is called the envelope.  Below the balloon they have a heat source to achieve and maintain the temperature of the air within the balloon, and underneath that they have the basket where the pilot and passengers ride.  Hot air has a lower density than colder air so as the air within the balloon is heated it creates buoyancy and causes the balloon to rise.

While hot air balloons are very simple in their design they are still subject to the same product defects that can cause them to fail.  The two main types of product defect are manufacture defect and design defect.  Sometimes an individual balloon isn’t manufactured to the specifications it was designed to or a part was broken or damaged during production.  If there is a failure in part of the balloon due to a manufacturing defect then it is possible that the manufacturer, distributor, and vendor could be held liable for the damage that resulted from the defect.  Design defects occur when there was a mistake made in the design process of a particular product.  Because design defects are usually common across an entire product line it is very important to identify them so other defective products can be recalled.  When a design defect causes a product to not perform in the expected way or to an expected standard causing damage then the manufacturer, distributor, and seller could all be liable.

Pilots of hot air balloons are responsible for the safety of themselves and all the passengers on board.  Pilots have a duty to their passengers to operate in a way that would be considered reasonable for another pilot in a same or similar circumstance.  If a pilot fails to do that then it may be considered a breach of that duty.  If breaching that duty caused harm or damage then it is possible that pilot negligence occurred and that injured parties would be entitled to damages.

Some hot air balloon companies require passengers to sign a waiver before riding.  Waivers are typically written by companies to try to avoid liability in case of an accident.  There are many situations in which waivers do not prohibit an injured party from bringing suit against the company.  Waivers are often written in ways that are hard to understand and an unreasonably ambiguous waiver is usually not enforceable.  Waivers must also be signed voluntarily and with the knowledge of what is being waived.  In situations where it can be shown that that did not occur a waiver may be unenforceable.

The damages that result from hot air balloon accidents can be extensive. Those who are injured are usually entitled to compensatory damages.  Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the injured party for economic and non-economic injuries that resulted from the hot air balloon accident.  Economic injuries include lost wages (including lost earning potential due to the injury), medical expenses, and life care expenses.  Non-economic damages are assessed based on the actual injury that occurred from hot air balloon accident.  Non-economic damages include any physical and psychological harm such as severe pain, emotional distress, loss of limbs, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment resulting from the injury.  They can also include compensation for wrongful death and loss of consortium in the event that a spouse is killed in an hot air balloon crash.  Punitive damages are damages that are assessed as punishment against the negligent actor.  Punitive damages are sometimes awarded when there has been a malicious disregard for the well being of the passengers.

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