News: Spaceport wants protections from tourist lawsuits

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.

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 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.

"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 Gabrynowicz said the only comparable laws cover adventure sports or amusement parks. If someone gets hurt on a roller coaster, for example, Gabrynowicz said, the operator generally is not exempt from liability just because a posted sign says passengers at their own risk.