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Campbell Law alumna submits first-of-its-kind claim to NASA

Photo of alumna Mica NGUYEN WORTHY Class of 2008

Campbell Law School alumna Mica Nguyen Worthy ’08, a partner at Cranfill Sumner LLP, has 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. This is a precedent-setting case that could set the standard for the future of space debris claims in both the public and private sectors, according to a press release from the firm.

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, who is chair of the firm’s Aviation & Aerospace Practice Group and the International Business Law 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.

Worthy serves as legal counsel to clients in the aviation and global supply chain industries, representing aircraft owners, pilots, charter jet companies, flight schools, airports, general aviation companies, fixed base operators, air carriers, as well as Aerospace/Aviation manufacturing, technology, and service companies. She has experience assisting clients in defending claims involving aviation business disputes, aircraft contract and ownership transactions, products liability, aviation accidents, personal injury, and wrongful death claims, as well as providing analysis of issues involving aviation expert witness challenges, aircraft valuation and damages, and contract dispute resolution. Worthy assists clients through pre-suit negotiations, mediation, arbitration and litigation in State and Federal Courts and internationally.

As a Certified Global Business Professional (NASBITE), Worthy has a specific focus on assisting global clients with their international operations with issues (particularly in the aviation and construction industries), such as contract disputes, commercial litigation and arbitration, negotiation of international contracts and international distributor agreements, trade credit payment disputes, international arbitration, and dispute resolution. She is also a founding Board Member of the Charlotte International Arbitration Society (CIAS), and currently serves as the Chair of the CIAS.  She has also served as past Chair of the N.C. Bar Association’s International Law & Practice Section. Worthy is a member of the North Carolina World Trade Association (Charlotte Chapter) and serves as a resource for the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC). Worthy has also been accepted into the International Association of Defense Counsel (IADC), where she served for two years as the Chair of the International Arbitration Committee and is a member of the Transportation (Aviation) Committee.

Worthy is a Charlotte native, and since returning she has been dedicated to volunteering her time and giving back to the community. Over the years, she has served in leadership roles in several organizations. She founded and currently serves on Board of the Charlotte Asian Pacific American Bar Association (Charlotte APABA). She has also served on the firm’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belongingness Committee and the Mecklenburg County Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Worthy raduated from the first class of the “Leaders Under 40” program, established by the Community Building Initiative (CBI) in Charlotte, and then she served on the CBI Board. Worthy graduated from the Bar Leadership Institute organized by the Mecklenburg County Bar, and has served as the Chair of the MCB’s Bar Leadership Institute committee. Worthy also graduated from the N.C. Bar Association’s Leadership Academy, and as noted has served as the Chair of the N.C. Bar Association’s International Law & Practice Section. In 2019, Worthy was named one of Charlotte’s “40 under 40” by the Charlotte Business Journal, which recognizes 40 individuals under the age of 40 in Charlotte, who are making major strides in their careers while also leaving a positive impact on their communities.

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