Criminal Liability and Aviation Safety

Can they exist together in accident investigations?


In November of last year a French appeals court overturned the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Continental Airlines in the Concorde crash disaster of 2000. It also overturned the conviction of a Continental mechanic who had been involved with the repair of part of a Continental DC-10.

The part came loose, fell on the runway and was hit by the Concorde on its takeoff. French aviation authorities concluded that this caused the Concorde to catch fire and crash. The court found that the piece of metal left on the runway led to the events that caused the crash. They said however that the criminal manslaughter charges were unjustified. Continental was required to pay a civil fine of $1.3 million.

This was of course France … which, like many other European countries, treats all transportation accidents as a crime as well as a civil accident until proven otherwise. France is one of a few countries that routinely seeks criminal indictments in transportation accidents, regardless of whether or not there is evidence of criminal intent or negligence.

Most airlines and in particular ours, the NTSB, and the aviation safety community were alarmed at the indictments. They all maintained that the threat of prosecution in accident cases discourages witnesses from providing information to crash investigators. Well, what else is new? Would you give out information that might contribute to your criminal indictment? Apparently in France and other countries the element of specific intent is not necessary for guilt. As many have said … human mistake or failure is clearly not a crime.

Air France was not found at fault in any way, but it did settle all the passengers’ claims. It was not accused of any wrongdoing. It was compensated by Continental for damage to its image. It joined the lawsuit in order to recover money damages from Continental and it did. It settled claims by the passengers for $150 million, roughly equal to the amount of the so-called fine paid by Continental. The fatal crash was the only one ever sustained by Concorde. Flights were halted in 2003.

Valujet

Here in the USA, the case that is presumed to be the progeny and premier example of federal and state joint criminal investigation in an accident case is the prosecution of SabreTech Inc., and three of its employees after the May 1995 crash of the Valujet DC-9 in the Florida Everglades. SabreTech was Valujet’s contract maintenance provider, and their employees packaged and labeled expired chemical oxygen generators and returned them to Valujet for shipment and further repair. NTSB concluded that these canisters ignited shortly after takeoff and were the cause of the crash.

This was the first large criminal investigation into the facts and circumstances of a major U.S. aircraft disaster. The State of Florida decided to join the feds in the prosecution by leveling felony murder and manslaughter charges against SabreTech on the same day that the federal government brought a 24-count indictment stating the charges against SabreTech and three of its employees for conspiring to falsify maintenance records, violating haz-mat regulations and unlawfully placing destructive devices aboard a commercial aircraft.

The defendants were convicted but the convictions of SabreTech and its employees in the trial court were vacated on appeal. The appellate court said that the repair people made mistakes, but they did not commit crimes. Further, the court said that they did not intend to kill the victims of the accident. Fortunately, our criminal justice system still requires a specific intent to do harm. It was a clear slap in the face of the criminal prosecutors.

The fear that most in the aviation safety investigation field have is that as time goes on the trend toward criminal investigations in aircraft accidents continues to become a routine part of the process. Many feel that this will direct more effort toward the criminal investigation of the accident rather than finding the probable cause of the accident.

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