The French law
In France, as well as many other EU countries, everyone from ATC controllers to mechanics, aircraft engineers, pilots, and just about anybody else who is involved with an accident are commonly subject to prosecution after an aircraft or other transportation accident where there are deaths. Manslaughter charges are typically and frequently brought where only simple negligence can be inferred, even though there is no clear evidence of intent to harm or cause an accident. After all, flying has inherent risks as we all know.
In our country this never happens unless there might be a clear and unmistakable intent to do harm. And there is good reason to support this. Yes, there have been cases where mechanics have been charged with crimes but they are very few and far between and usually only where there were serious violations of the law or more likely, political motives involved with ambitious prosecutors. (Payne Stewart Learjet crash, Air Tran in Florida, Eastern Airlines, etc.)
The two Continental employees, along with the others, are facing the prospect of five years in prison and a substantial fine if found guilty by the French court.
The French court system
The court consists of a president of the court who generally conducts the evidence-gathering portion of the trial. Three other judges participate in the process and at the end render their joint opinion on guilt or innocence of the defendants. There is no jury, like in our country, and it is left to the joint decision of the judges involved who like we say are the "judge and jury."
The judges are usually political appointees who may be charged with carrying out the wishes of the government, which in this case is to place as much blame for the accident on everybody but the French government.
The survivors of the passengers have already been "bought off" by the government by way of settlements which have been reported as $1 million each. This all in accord with the decision to avoid a more public display in regard to a public civil trial over who was to blame. Thus, numerous trial lawyers for each of the decedent's survivors are not participating as would be the case in a non-settled civil case in our country. This of course helps to insulate the French government from potential embarrassment and or liability.
At the present time there is a big push in the European aviation safety community to merge all aircraft operational safety activities into one huge organization. International Civil Aircraft Association (ICAO), our FAA, and the European Union have just signed an agreement to standardize all safety audit protocols. In addition, the EASA has joined with the ICAO in instigating a requirement among all member airlines to establish a new safety management system (SMS) by November of this year 2010. Our own FAA is busy proposing to follow this so-called mandatory mandate by the ICAO. In this way EASA stands poised to step in and supervise this worldwide collection of safety information from all airlines within the control of EASA or ICAO. SMS is also designed to capture information from repair facilities and manufacturers as well. What a plan!
Now this is no small effort at collecting information. It is planned to include regular scheduled collection systems to bring together real-time safety data (and accident data) in one place to be analyzed and watched over most likely by a group in the EASA organization. Our FAA is working on this program out of its Office of Aviation Safety. Write FAA urging the Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety to exercise caution in participating in any program that might allow foreign safety activities to access, collect, and collate our operational safety data. Our airline people will most likely veto any step in that direction. (800 Independence, Washington, D.C.). Also check the Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 140 for the NPR on the proposed reach of SMS.
FAA has so many operational safety programs in place now it can't handle all of them effectively. They include CAS, the continuous analysis and surveillance system; ATOS, the air transportation oversight system; FOQA, flight operational quality assurance; and ASAP, the aviation safety action partnership. These efforts and others have been seen to languish for many years with little effective supervision and or useful analysis of the tons of data collected. They just don't have the necessary staff to supervise these activities, much less a new one like SMS.