Private Spaceports-Launchpad for Litigation
The Obama administration’s reduction of the manned space program has led to a corresponding acceleration of private spaceflight programs. In Texas, former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk’s remarkable SpaceX corporation is in the process of determining the potential environmental impact of its proposed rocket launch facility at the pristine Boca Chica Beach in deep south Texas.
Things have progressed further in New Mexico. There, Virgin Galactic is constructing its $209 million dollar Spaceport America. The project is far enough along that negotiations have begun regarding potential liability for adverse events occurring in connection with it.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, a bill has passed the New Mexico Senate that would limit lawsuits against companies involved in launches from the site. Participants in the bill included the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association.
Virgin Galactic is obviously concerned about the potential for liability in connection with its launches. The natural assumption would be that anyone choosing to go on one of the flights would simply sign a release of their (and their relatives) right to sue in the event of an injury or death. But according to the article, “bills that would have prevented passengers who sign ‘informed consent’ waivers from suing the spacecraft parts suppliers and manufacturers” had previously stalled.
The report goes on to state that the current bill would require Virgin Galactic and suppliers to carry $1 million in insurance to qualify for liability limitations proposed by the legislature.
SpaceX appears to have multiple states other than Texas interested in hosting its site. So we can expect a battle between these states over who will offer SpaceX the most favorable terms. I would expect the current Texas legislature to offer it extreme forms of lawsuit protection in order to convince it to build here. But they will need to be careful. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a passenger to waive his rights in order to be allowed on board. But there could be many other forms of damage caused by the facilities and operations, including (1) damage caused by construction and operation (2) damage to local businesses and, most importantly (3) environmental harm. The legislature will need to carefully consider just what it is willing to sacrifice to bring to Texas an admittedly important new industry.