Criminal prosecution in the wake of aviation accidents is on the rise, although not as much in the U.S. as in some other countries, at least for now.
Dave Adams, a partner at Chicago-based aviation litigators Prangle & Schoonveld said, “Since 1955, there have been 55 accidents resulting in criminal trials.” But 28 of them have occurred since 2000, confirming the increase. A major percentage of those prosecutions have taken place in Europe, Asia and Africa. Adams talked on this subject at the Flight Safety Foundation’s recent Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar (CASS) in San Antonio.
Experts in aviation safety agree that criminalizing an accident diverts attention away from determining the cause and preventing another accident. Adams suggested looking to ICAO Annex 13 for guidance. “The sole purpose of the investigation of an accident shall be the prevention of accidents and incidents. It is not the purpose of this activity to apportion blame or liability.”
However, said Adams, “Very often there is an automatic response to aviation accidents and a criminal investigation, depending upon how a particular judge regards the facts. There is great tension between the initial investigation to determine the cause, which is an aviation safety role, and possible prosecution of the alleged criminal activity.” Today, he said, a criminal investigation affects almost everyone involved within aviation, including pilots, maintenance personnel, owners, operators, OEMs and air traffic controllers.