Clear air turbulence
Gerald Sterns on clear air turbulence on flights.
Clear air forecasts
Again, just in the past few days, we have another major injury accident, where a national air carrier, in this case United, flying the route it has done so hundreds if not thousands of times, encounters "severe clear air turbulence."  This phenomenon can cause an aircraft to drop several thousand feet in a very short time, not unlike an elevator, or force it into other maneuvers that are going to seriously dislodge passengers therein, or anything else that is not tied down.
There have been a lot of these incidents over the years, some very serious, resulting in major spinal cord injuries, brain damage and even death, as a passenger strikes the ceiling or other object violently as the aircraft literally falls out from under him or her.
Airlines have always been quick to insist that there is no fault or negligence on their part in these encounters, as, by definition, clear air turbulence is just that: an aberration or shear of wind currents in clear air, that cannot be seen as approached.  It is a weather phenomenon that can develop at higher altitudes due to wind currents and air movement below.
Although not visible as such, this does not mean that clear air turbulence cannot be anticipated, prepared for, and measures taken to avoid it.  First, there are the weather maps and forecasts along the route, prepared by each airline's weather centers, and also available through the government. Circumstances conducive to clear air turbulence can be tracked and predicted.  Pilot reports are invaluable.  Any time a flight encounters turbulence, it is reported, and that information is passed on to all following flights on the same route.
Many of you who have flown have undoubtedly heard the announcement from the flight deck: we are going to be encountering some pretty heavy turbulence, so (everyone please buckle up( or(we are going to try for a different altitude to avoid this).  Such routine measures confirm that the airlines can, to a large measure foresee and predict turbulence.

If so, and the flight continues into the turbulence area without trying to avoid or getting out very clear and urgent warnings to all passengers to immediately buckle up  - and stay that way - as opposed to just turning on the Fasten Seat Belt sigh, which may or may not be seen and acted on by passengers for all sorts of reason.
Moreover, where there are serious injuries, the common denominator of which is that the victim has been forcibly impacted with some part of the aircraft, usually above them, as the ceiling, that is pretty clear evidence that the passenger was not bucked in, and this, in turn leads us to the question of were adequate and pointed warnings given from the flight deck or not?
Further investigation would be needed to determine whether or not the carrier was reasonable in proceeding into the turbulence area in the first place.  these considerations are very important when we deal with the legal side of these occurrences.  In a domestic flight, the fact that a passenger was injured by turbulence, in and of itself, does not make the carrier or its insurers liable for damages.  Negligence, or want of due care in some form on the part of the carrier must be established.
On international flights, the rules are different, and it is much less of a burden on the passenger to establish airline responsibility.  And conceivably, this could also apply to passengers on the Denver turbulence case, in they were traveling on this leg of their itinerary on an overall international ticket, as could be the case, say with tourists who would return to Europe, Asia, or wherever.
Legal questions regarding levels of airline responsibility and clear air turbulence can be very complex.  Obtaining competent legal advice for passengers is highly recommended.  Most law firms doing this kind of work will accept these cases on a contingency fee, thus requiring no advance payment by the passengers.
Gerald Sterns is an experienced aviaton lawyer who handles air cases on behalf of passengers and families.  He writes often about general aviation matters.  His firm can be reached at

Sterns has been representing plaintiffs in aviation accidents for Forty years.

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