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Airline Passenger's Paralysis Puts Focus on Turbulence, In-Flight Injuries

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By David Goguen on April 22, 2009 7:59 AM

A Continental Airlines passenger suffered a broken neck and broken back on Saturday when a flight experienced serious turbulence over Texas. The 47 year-old female passenger was injured in the plane's lavatory at a time when flight attendants had instructed passengers to return to their seats and fasten their seatbelts, according to news reports.

ABC News is reporting that the unidentified woman "was one of two passengers and one crew member on Continental flight 511 from Houston to McAllen who were injured early Saturday morning in mid-flight." The woman is currently experiencing paralysis from her chest to her toes and is undergoing a second surgery, and her chances of making any degree of recovery are unknown.

According to CNN, federal aviation officials are investigating the "rocky Texas flight", and the seriously injured passenger has retained an attorney who states that "his client struck her head on the bathroom ceiling when the plane suddenly dropped during turbulence."  

How Common are In-Flight Injuries? Serious in-flight injuries on major airlines are pretty rare. FAA statistics show that about 58 people in the U.S. are injured each year by turbulence, with 198 turbulence accidents causing 266 serious injuries and three fatalities from 1980 through 2004. According to the FAA, turbulence is the leading cause of in-flight injuries to passengers and flight attendants, and two-thirds of turbulence-related accidents occur at or above 30,000 feet. Learn more about Turbulence and Staying Safe.

Can an Airline Be Liable or In-Flight Injuries? The short answer is yes, but of course it's more complicated than that. Airlines are held to a fairly high safety standard under the Federal Aviation Act, and are required to take reasonable steps to ensure passenger safety. This is why the ubiquitous "seatbelt sign" gets turned on when turbulence is encountered or anticipated, and passengers are reminded to stay in their seats. But if an in-flight injury occurs, it still must be shown that the airline was somehow negligent (i.e. a seatbelt wasn't functioning properly or the aircraft was understaffed) in order for a claim to be successful. Learn more about In-Flight Injuries on Airplanes.

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