A precedent-setting case that could set the standard for the future of space debris claims in both the public and private sectors

On May 22, 2024, Mica Nguyen Worthy submitted a claim to NASA to recover for her clients’ damages resulting from a space debris incident involving property owner, Alejandro Otero and his family.

On March 8, 2024, a piece of space debris hit the family home of Alejandro Otero, while his son Daniel was present and left a sizable hole from the roof through the sub-flooring. The space debris was confirmed by NASA to be from its flight support equipment used to mount the batteries on the cargo pallet.

The Oteros retained Worthy to navigate the insurance and legal process and to make a formal claim against NASA. The damages for the Otero family members include non-insured Property Damage loss, Business Interruption damages, Emotional/Mental anguish damages, and the costs for assistance from third parties required in the process. Additionally, the Oteros’ homeowner’s insurance carrier submitted a simultaneous claim for the damages to the property that it had subrogated.

“Space debris is a real and serious issue because of the increase in space traffic in recent years,” Worthy emphasized. She had previously written on the Kessler Effect, where the density of space debris in low Earth orbit becomes so great as to cause catastrophic collisions and a “cascading” effect of damage both in orbit and on the surface of the Earth.  This space debris claim is historical in that it involves a “real life example” of the consequences of space debris surviving to the Earth’s surface. How NASA responds to her claim will form the foundation upon which the legal landscape in this field will be built. Worthy said, “My clients are seeking adequate compensation to account for the stress and impact that this event had on their lives. They are grateful that no one sustained physical injuries from this incident, but a ‘near miss’ situation such as this could have been catastrophic. If the debris had hit a few feet in another direction, there could have been serious injury or a fatality.”

Worthy, a Partner in the Charlotte office of Cranfill Sumner LLP and Chair of the firm’s Aviation & Aerospace Practice Group, worked with her litigation team with experience in handling claims to prepare the Federal Torts Claim Act (“FTCA”) submission with proofs of loss to NASA to fully articulate a negligence claim on behalf of her clients. However, Worthy also implored NASA to consider that persons in the U.S. should not have to make a claim under a negligence legal theory when the U.S. government has committed to being “absolutely liable” under international treaty law for damage to persons or property on the surface of the Earth caused by its space objects.

“If the incident had happened overseas, and someone in another country were damaged by the same space debris as in the Oteros’ case, the U.S. would have been absolutely liable to pay for those damages under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects also known as the ‘Space Liability Convention.” We have asked NASA not to apply a different standard towards U.S. citizens or residents, but instead to take care of the Oteros and make them whole,” she said. “Here, the U.S. government, through NASA, has an opportunity to set the standard or ‘set a precedent’ as to what responsible, safe, and sustainable space operations ought to look like. If NASA were to take the position that the Oteros’ claims should be paid in full, it would send a strong signal to both other governments and private industries that such victims should be compensated regardless of fault.”

Under the FTCA, NASA will have six months to respond to the claims.

In the meantime, Worthy has further engaged in the conversation with several other space law experts in the space community, especially considering recent news events with additional space debris landing in North Carolina. This topic of conversation and dialogue advances the evolving legal landscape in the field.