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Spaceport wants protections from tourist lawsuits
Question of the Day
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spaceport America officials are urging legislators to limit potential lawsuits from wealthy outer space tourists who take off from New Mexico, saying such a bill is crucial to the future of the project.
Legal experts, however, say there is no way to know whether the so-called informed consent laws will offer any protection to spacecraft operators and suppliers in the event something goes wrong.
“Since this has never happened yet, we have no precedent,” said Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, director of the space law program at the University of Mississippi.
Such measures are being pushed by states trying to compete in the fledgling commercial space travel arena, and Spaceport America officials say that New Mexico risks losing out on a project that was intended to boost the economy in the mostly rural state.
They say New Mexico needs to pass a bill to retain anchor tenant Virgin Galactic and to recruit new space business to the state.
At issue is liability for passengers who pay to take spaceflights — like those planned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for $200,000 a head — from the spaceport near the city of Truth or Consequences.
New Mexico lawmakers several years ago passed a bill that exempts Virgin Galactic from being sued by passengers in the event of an accident provided they have been informed of the risks. Officials have refused, however, to follow a handful of other states in expanding that exemption to suppliers.
Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson has blamed New Mexico’s refusal during the last two legislative sessions to expand the law as the reason the spaceport has been passed over by companies in favor of states such as Texas and Florida.
Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, has hinted it will leave New Mexico if an expansion isn’t passed this year.
“I understand the impetus to try to match other states, but right now there is no guarantee it’s enforceable,” said Guigi Carminati with the Weil Law Firm in Houston. “That really is the bottom line.”
She and Ms. Gabrynowicz said the only comparable laws cover adventure sports or amusement parks — and their effectiveness varies.
If someone gets hurt on a roller coaster, for example, Ms. Gabrynowicz said, the operator generally is not exempt from liability just because a posted sign says passengers ride at their own risk.
Those “don’t hold up” in court, she said.
While allowing that there is “a lot of case law regarding those kinds of activities,” she added, “There is none yet for state law for space launches.”
The effectiveness of laws protecting extreme and adventure sports operators is harder to know, said Ms. Carminati.
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