A family whose roof was damaged by space debris files a lawsuit against NASA

The piece of debris that fell through the roof of Alejandro Otero (right) came from a strut discarded from the International Space Station.

A homeowner in southwest Florida has filed a formal claim with NASA for damages caused by a piece of space debris that fell onto his roof in March.

This legal case is unprecedented, as no one has made such a claim against NASA before. How the space agency responds will set a precedent, and that could be important in a world of increasing activity in orbit, with space debris and vehicles increasingly making uncontrolled re-entries through Earth’s atmosphere.

Alejandro Otero, the owner of the Naples, Florida, home that was struck by debris, was not home when part of the International Space Station battery struck his home on March 8. His son Daniel, 19, was at home but escaped injury. NASA has confirmed that the 1.6-pound object, made of Inconel metal alloy, was part of a battery pack jettisoned from the space station in 2021.

The Otero family’s attorney, Micah Nguyen Worthy, told Ars that she is asking NASA for “in excess of $80,000” for uninsured property damage loss, business interruption damages, emotional and mental anguish damages, and third-party assistance costs. Concerts.

“We intentionally kept it very plausible because we didn’t want it to appear to NASA that my clients were looking for a windfall,” Worthy said.

The family has not filed a lawsuit against NASA, at least not yet. Worthy said she had productive conversations with NASA’s legal representatives. She said Otero’s family wants to make up for their losses, but also set a precedent for future victims. “This is really the first legal claim that has been made seeking compensation for damages related to space debris,” Worthy said. “How NASA responds, in my opinion, will be key to how future claims are handled. This is really changing the legal landscape.”

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Who exactly is responsible for space debris?

If space debris from another country—say, the upper stage of a Chinese or Russian rocket—hit a family in the United States, the victims would be entitled to compensation under the Space Liability Convention that space powers agreed to half a century ago. Under this treaty, the launching state bears “absolute” responsibility to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or aircraft, and is responsible for damages resulting from its errors in space. In an international situation, NASA or another US government agency negotiates on behalf of the victim to obtain compensation.

However, in this case the debris came from the International Space Station: an old battery pack that NASA was responsible for. NASA completed a multi-year upgrade of the space station’s power system in 2020 by installing a final set of new lithium-ion batteries to replace aging nickel-hydrogen batteries that were nearing the end of their life. During the spacewalk, this battery pack was mounted on a charging pad launched by Japan.

Officials originally planned to place platforms of old batteries inside a series of Japanese cargo ships for a destroyed and controlled re-entry over the ocean. But due to a series of delays, the last charging pad of the old batteries failed to return to Earth, so NASA abandoned the batteries for an unguided reentry. NASA incorrectly believed that the batteries would completely burn up during reentry through the atmosphere.

The cylindrical object, a few inches in size, fell through the roof of Alejandro Otero's home in Florida in March.
Zoom in / The cylindrical object, a few inches in size, fell through the roof of Alejandro Otero’s home in Florida in March.

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Because this issue falls outside the scope of the Space Liability Convention, there is no mechanism by which a US citizen can pursue claims from the US government for damages caused by space debris. So the Otero family is filing the first ever claim under the Federal Space Debris Tort Claims Act. This tort law allows anyone to sue the US government if there is negligence. In this case, negligence could be that NASA miscalculated whether enough debris remained to destroy property on Earth.

NASA provided a form for Otero’s family to file a claim, which Worthy said they did at the end of May. NASA now has six months to review the claim. The space agency has several options. Legally, it can compensate the Otero family up to $25,000 for each of their claims based on the Federal Tort Claims Act (See legal code). If the agency seeks to pay full compensation, it will need approval from the US Attorney General. Finally, NASA could deny the claims or make an unacceptable settlement offer, in which case the Otero family could file a federal lawsuit in Florida.

Ars has requested comment from NASA about the claims made and will update this story when we receive one.

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