Friday, June 26, 2015

Another Alaska Aviation Tragedy: What Can Victim Families Expect?

   Eight Alaska visitors have died in the crash of a Pro Mech flight seeing trip to the Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska.  The flight was an excursion sold through Holland America cruise lines and operated by Pro Mech Air.  Both Holland America and Pro Mech have expressed the traditional messages of concerns we have become used to hearing in the news.  See

   The accident fits a general pattern of Alaska aviation tragedies.  In winter months, it is the scheduled airlines that experience accidents while facing adverse winter weather.  In the summer months, the risk is higher for flightseeing operations who have a short window of time for their business catering to Alaska visitors.

   So what happens next?  Here is what I tell persons who call me immediately after tragedies like this.

1.  The Most Important Priority is Grieving.

   Whether it is a mother, father, sister, or brother, each of the families has lost a loved one.  The most important thing at this point in time is to honor the loved one and start the grieving process.  This means providing for funeral services and being alone with family.   I encourage clients to do nothing for 30 days.

2.   This Is Not a Shared Tragedy.

   While Pro Mech and Holland America may express concern and say otherwise, this is not a shared tragedy.  On the one hand, each visitor paid for a safe flight/visiting experience, and knew nothing about the dangers of a bad weather day in SouthEast Alaska.  On the other hand, Pro Mech and Holland America were conducting a business and made the conscious decision to dispatch the flight.   With prepaid excursions, there is always pressure not to cancel because of weather.

3.    Other than Logistics, There is No Reason to Have Contact with Pro Mech or Holland America.

    Corporate spokespersons and insurance adjusters often "reach out" to victim families.  Other than the logistics of transporting the loved one home and returning personal effects, there is no reason to have any contact with these businesses.  (There may be "Medical Payments Coverage" or "Funeral Expense Coverage" which may pay transportation expenses home).  While some of this outreach may, indeed, be well-intentioned, a less attractive motivation is damage control and to assess what can be done immediately during a time of grief to reduce the business cost of the tragedy later.

4.    Other than to Stop Contact with Pro Mech/Holland America, there is No Immediate Need to Contact a Lawyer.

   For the same reasons that I have said that the most important priority is grieving and there is no reason to contact Pro Mech/Holland America, there is also no immediate need to contact a lawyer.  The investigation of the crash will be conducted by the NTSB and there is little that a lawyer can do at this stage beyond gathering information.  When clients call me, I share my respect for their loss and promise to call them in 30 days.

   There are exceptions to this:  Hiring a lawyer is one way to stop or control contacts with the legally responsible corporations.  The other exception is if there is person with first hand knowledge of the circumstances of the pilot's departure decision.

5.    You Will Need a Lawyer.

   In my experience, the legally responsible corporations grossly simplify claims and  attempt to resolve claims so as to discourage lawyer involvement. One way or another, the help of a lawyer will be needed.

     In any death, there are probate issues and the grieving family works through the process of administering the will, distributing personal effects, the financial impact of the sudden tragedy, and other issues.  A big issue is often life insurance or other death benefits to help the family adjust to their new situation.  This all will require legal help.

   Another issue is valuation of the claim.  This will be a function of the victim's financial situation, his family situation, including not just spouses and children but also other potential dependents like parents and friends as well as the ages of these people.  This becomes complicated quickly.  Just as one hires an accountant or realtor for taxes or sale of a house, a lawyer will be needed to address these issues.   Without a proper valuation of a claim, it is impossible to make an informed decision as to what to do.

   Finally, in cases involving cruise passengers, the cruise "ticket" (often found in an online contract) may raise legal issues.  For example, it may require the filing of a lawsuit within 6 months or require suit in a specific state.

     My last piece of advice in times like this is to remind callers that this is a complicated card game.  They need to play the hand smartly.  See