FAA harassment lawsuit downed by federal judge

 - October 8, 2007, 5:55 AM

A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., dismissed a $1 million lawsuit against the FAA over the 1999 fatal crash of a Cessna CitationJet. The lawsuit was based on accusations that harassment of the pilot by two FAA inspectors from the Kansas City FSDO contributed to the accident.

Judge Ortrie Smith granted a motion by FAA lawyers to dismiss the case because plaintiff Grace Brinell, widow of 54-year-old pilot Joseph Brinell, had failed to provide documents or agree to conferences that the FAA requested.

An attorney for the FAA said in the motion to dismiss the case that Grace Brinell, a professional pilot who filed the lawsuit without an attorney, had decided “her personal situation and career obligations do not afford her the time and energy” to continue the suit. He said he was recounting a conversation he had with her.

The accident aircraft had departed Lambert Field/St. Louis International Airport (STL) at 1447 CST on Dec. 9, 1999, with five passengers, one of whom was also a pilot. Also on board were two faculty members of the College of the Ozarks, where Joseph Brinell was aviation director, and their wives.

The last radar contact was at about 1510 CST when the CitationJet was at 2,100 msl and five nautical miles from its destination, M. Graham Clark Airport in Point Lookout, Mo. All on board died when the twinjet, which was owned by the college, hit a hillside on the northwest edge of Branson, Mo., 4.3 miles from its destination.

At 1430 CST, the weather observation at the airport was 300 feet overcast, three-quarters of a mile visibility in rain and mist. Approach minimums for the GPS RWY 11 straight-in approach to the airport are a minimum ceiling of 600 feet and visibility of one mile for a category B aircraft.

The NTSB concluded that the crash resulted from pilot error under adverse weather conditions. Factors relating to the accident, the Board said, were pilot fatigue, pressure induced by an FAA inspector and use of inappropriate medication.

FAA Investigation
Three months after the accident, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked the FAA to investigate allegations from Brinell’s widow that the Kansas City FSDO had wrongfully targeted her late husband for regulatory enforcement.

The FAA’s own investigation had acknowledged that a threatened formal reexamination of Brinell’s pilot competency in May 1999 was not warranted, but it concluded that the FSDO was not remiss in its oversight responsibilities or abusive in exercising its authority to reexamine Brinell. It called the actions taken by the FSDO supervisor “appropriate.”

Dissatisfied with the FAA’s finding, Blunt asked Department of Transportation inspector general Kenneth Mead to look into the accident and the subsequent FAA investigation of its inspectors.

Mead later recommended that the FAA take disciplinary action against two FSDO officials whose “unwarranted” actions against Joseph Brinell might have contributed to his fatal crash. It emerged that during a layover at STL, Brinell confided to a friend that a supervisor at the FSDO “is trying to destroy me.” The friend said Brinell “wasn’t himself” that day and claimed he had not slept for three days.

In her lawsuit, Grace Brinell contended that FAA regulators in Kansas City unduly harassed her husband, inducing stress that led to the crash. Mead’s staff discovered that between March 1999 and the day of the accident, the FSDO’s general aviation supervisor and a principal operations inspector attempted to strip Brinell of his pilot-examiner status, directed a reexamination of his pilot proficiency and ordered him to turn all his logbooks into the FSDO as part of an investigation into alleged unauthorized checkrides that he gave.

Mead said last January that these actions were unwarranted and the FSDO’s justification lacked credibility. His findings, he added, supported the NTSB’s conclusion that the FAA had induced stress and given rise to at least the appearance that Brinell was being harassed. The IG also accused the FAA of failing to take remedial action against the two inspectors, which it had promised Blunt in a letter.

An FAA spokeswoman in the FAA’s Kansas City regional office told AIN that the FAA had no comment on the dismissal of the lawsuit. But she said that the FAA changed the job descriptions of the two men involved in the case. She refused to say whether the job changes were demotions, but said both men are appealing.

In interviews with NTSB investigators, one of the inspectors said Brinell resisted regulations and they were trying to get him to be more cooperative by pressuring him.

Grace Brinell thought Mead’s findings would add credibility to the lawsuit. But FAA lawyers countered that Joseph Brinell was responsible for his crash because he chose to fly in bad weather and was taking a medication that can cause drowsiness.