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Who will you sue if your spacecraft crashes?

January 24, 2013|By John M. Glionna
  • Guests outside the new Spaceport America hangar in Upham, N.M.
Guests outside the new Spaceport America hangar in Upham, N.M. (Matt York )

So you’re planning to blast off into outer space on a future commercial flight from New Mexico. What if things go south and you are injured or killed? Who do you or your survivors sue?

New Mexico legislators have agreed to amend a state law that narrows who future space travelers can take to court if their venture goes ka-blooey. The new bill will protect spacecraft parts suppliers from damage lawsuits by passengers on space tourism flights launched from the state.

In coming years, Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists into space from Spaceport America near the community of Truth or Consequences, for $200,000 a ticket. State officials said this week’s agreement was vital for developing a commercial space travel industry at a state-financed spaceport in southern New Mexico.

The Space Flight Immunity Act, passed in 2010, protects Virgin Galactic from passenger damage lawsuits if the intrepid travelers had been informed of the risks of space travel. The amendment offers limited liability protection to suppliers and manufacturers of spacecraft parts and components as well.

Ray Vargas II, president of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers’ Assn., told the Los Angeles Times that his group has fought for years against any blanket protection for businesses in the still-risky realm of commercial space travel.

“We’ve opposed blanket protections for two years, and this year we stood ready to oppose them again,” Vargas said. “But lawmakers urged us to get together with Virgin Galactic officials to work something out.”

Vargas says the agreement adds manufacturers of spacecraft parts and components to the list of operators with limited protection against liability. Under the new legislation, these businesses, like Virgin Galactic, could still be sued if plantiffs could prove that a firm was reckless or should have known about a parts defect.

Officials say space travel will one day become big business in New Mexico.

“Too much has been invested by both the state and Virgin Galactic to abandon this project,” state Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said in a statement. “It is in New Mexico's best interests that the spaceport project moves forward quickly, with as much consumer protection as possible.”

Officials say suppliers and manufacturers involved in spaceflights will be required to carry $1 million in liability insurance coverage. That wouldn't go far in the event of a crash, however.

“This is a limited expansion of the Space Flight Immunity Act,” Vargas told The Times. “It doesn’t preclude people from filing lawsuits – far from it. We’re behind this project, but not at the expense of safety.”

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