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Does N.M.'s Space Travel Liability Law Go Too Far?

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on April 05, 2013 12:03 PM

Commercial space travel may sound like a blast. But if anyone gets hurt, certain personal injury lawsuits may not fly, thanks to a new law.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed legislation Tuesday that limits the civil liability of commercial spaceflight operators and parts suppliers. The bill is an effort to protect the state's nearly quarter-billion-dollar investment in commercial space travel, including the construction of a futuristic "spaceport," and to keep billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic firmly grounded in the state, Insurance Journal reports.

The specific purpose of the law is to protect spacecraft parts suppliers from lawsuits filed by future passengers. So what exactly does the space travel liability law say?

New Mexico's Space Flight Informed Consent Act

Under the new legislation, space flight entities (namely, space flight operators and suppliers) are not liable for passengers who die or sustain injuries as a result of the space flight as long as:

  1. The passengers received warning of the inherent risks of flying in space, and
  2. The passengers signed a liability waiver.

Injuries covered by the space flight waiver include death, bodily injury, emotional injury, and property damage.

Some critics may view the waiver as excessive, given the nature of commercial space travel -- the argument being, when you decide to embark on a dangerous voyage to outer space and then get hurt or killed, you have no one to blame but yourself. But these days, most companies are interested in protecting themselves through elaborate liability waivers.

Exceptions

However, New Mexico's space travel liability law carves out a few exceptions. Space flight operators and suppliers can still be liable under certain circumstances common in personal injury law. For example, space entities are liable on Earth if they:

  1. Acted in gross negligence or willful disregard for the safety of a passenger,
  2. Knew or should have known about a dangerous condition used in the space flight activities, or
  3. Intentionally injured the participant.

For any new operation, especially one that catapults people into space, the above exceptions could be an issue. For example, a dangerous condition glossed over during an inspection could become a major problem and increase the likelihood of lawsuits. "Gross negligence" and "willful disregard," on the other hand, are pretty high standards to meet and pose less of a liability issue to space entities.

To the future passengers of Virgin Galactic (or any other commercial space travel venture): From signing on the dotted line to going where few civilians have gone before, may the force be with you.

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