Most airplane passengers don’t really think about the responsibilities they would have in the event of an emergency evacuation when they clamber for the emergency exit row – popular amongst seasoned travelers for its extra leg room. While commercial plane accidents are statistically rare (2017 was the safest year on record for commercial air travel), they do happen. In the event of an in-flight emergency, those in the exit row have real, legal responsibilities to their fellow passengers. Here’s what you need to know before your next flight.
What Duties Come With Sitting in a Plane’s Emergency Exit Rows?
When you choose a seat in one of a plane’s emergency rows, you’re implicitly taking on all the duties that come with your position. Most airlines even make these duties explicit, listing them and asking those seated in the emergency row if they are able and willing to carry them out in case of an emergency. Either way, taking a seat in an emergency row automatically comes with responsibilities other in-flight passengers don’t have: responsibilities to get others out safely during an evacuation.
The duties someone in the emergency row generally have include quickly opening the emergency hatch (average weight: 40-50 pounds), releasing the slide, and directing frightened passengers out of the opening. To take a seat in an emergency row, you must be at least 15 years old and physically capable of lifting and maneuvering the emergency exit hatch. The vast majority of airlines don’t vet the passengers who choose to sit in this row. Instead, they ask if they are ready, able, and willing to take on these duties, and trust their responses.
Unfortunately, many passengers accept these duties without knowing what they really mean, or worse – knowing they won’t be able to fulfill them, but unwilling to give up the seat. If an emergency does occur, unfit and ill-prepared emergency seat occupants could fail to open the hatch in time and risk injuries to themselves and others in the stampede of passengers trying to evacuate. It’s important to take these responsibilities seriously, and to only accept them with the good faith belief that you can fulfill them if necessary.
Liability for Failure to Carry Out Emergency Duties
If you lie about your abilities to carry out emergency flight duties, you could be risking your lives and those of others on the plane with you. Passengers could trample you, hurt each other, and hurt themselves if you’re unable to perform your duties in an evacuation. Delays of even a few moments could be enough to endanger passengers’ lives. It is a possibility that you could be legally and financially responsible for damages if you fail to carry out emergency exit duties on a flight, if you fail due to negligence.
During a personal injury lawsuit after a plane accident, the court will compare the actions you took to the actions a “reasonable and prudent” party would have taken in the same situation. It’s unlikely that someone could blame you for injuries if you accepted emergency duties with good faith and tried your best to fulfill them. If you did all you could but still failed to lift the hatch, you will probably escape liability. If, however, the courts find that someone else would have done something differently and prevented the injuries in question, you could be liable.
Negligently failing your duties as an emergency seat occupant on a plane is grounds for a lawsuit against you, if this negligence was the proximate cause of someone else’s injuries. Like other personal injury lawsuits, the victim will have two years from the date of the injury to bring a claim against you. You may share liability with the airline depending on the situation. If you find yourself in the defendant’s seat in such a case, hire an aviation disaster attorney to help protect your rights.