Friday, May 13, 2011

Aviation Accidents: Criminal Events?

Today -- May 11 -- marks a sad anniversary in aviation history.

On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet commercial airliner crashed in the Florida Everglades and all persons on board perished.  It was a tragic accident that could have been avoided.  Following an investigation, the government, for the first time, indicted an aviation repair station, SabreTech, and several of its employees for various violations related to the transportation of hazardous materials, namely oxygen generators.  SabreTech was prosecuted in federal court, a proceeding in which "the record reflects that these aviation repair station personnel committed mistakes, but they did not commit crimes."  See United States v. SabreTech, Inc., 271 F.3d 1018 (11th Cir. 2001).

The court went on to say, "...this was a tragic accident that needlessly claimed the lives of over 100 people.  That loss is irreplaceable.  However, the record is clear that SabreTech and its employees did not intend to kill these people when it packed the old oxygen canisters and transported them to the ValuJet aircraft."

Compare that with what happened on July 25, 2000, when a Continental Airlines DC-10 departed from Charles de Gaulle Airport in France.  A 17-inch-long titanium wear strip was shed by the jumbo-jet and left on the runway.  Air France Flight 4590—Concorde—departed next, bound for New York.  The supersonic jet hit the strip, which punctured a tire, throwing rubber debris into the delta wing.  A fuel tank ruptured and the airplane was ignited into a catastrophic  fire.  After a 90 second attempt to gain speed and altitude, the Concorde crashed into a nearby hotel, killing 113 people.  In 2010, a French court tried Continental Airlines and two of its employees for manslaughter while prosecutors accused French officials of neglecting to fix known design defects in the airplane.

All this begs the question: should the law regard aviation accidents from a criminal perspective?  Many organizations have voiced opposition, but the issue seems to be emerging and not settled.

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