The following guest post was written by Michael W. Johnson, the President and CEO of Paramount Aviation Resources Group. It was motivated when Continental Airlines mechanic John Taylor was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the crash of the Concorde flight AF4590.
The recent ruling by the French Court convicting Continental Airlines mechanic John Taylor for involuntary manslaughter for the crash of the Concorde flight AF 4590 in July, 2000 brings to light the vulnerability airline personnel face as part of their job. One of the interesting aspects of this case was that Taylor, an aircraft mechanic, lives and works in Texas. He was charged and convicted of a crime without ever entering the jurisdiction of the court that ruled on the case.
This is not a standalone case of crewmembers being criminally charged for negligence following an aircraft incident or accident. Other examples of crewmembers being criminally charged following accidents or incidents include:
- A Lebanese court convicted the captain of UTA Flight 141 in October 2010 and jailed him for 20 years following a crash in December 2003. The aircraft took off up to 20,000 pounds over the maximum allowable gross takeoff weight and crashed shortly thereafter. Authorities ruled that the cause of the crash was “[uneven] distribution of the load.”
- An Italian court convicted the captain and co-pilot for the Tuninter Flight 1153 crash off the coast of Sicily in 2005. Both pilots received jail sentences. The court ruled that the pilots failed to take adequate emergency measures before the crash.
- Two U.S. corporate pilots were charged by a Brazilian court following a mid-air collision that resulted in the crash of a B-737 over Brazil in 2006. Prosecutors insist that the corporate jet was flying at the incorrect altitude (even though the evidence supported the pilot’s assertions that the altitude was assigned to them by ATC).
- A Japan Airlines (JAL) MD-11 pilot was indicted for professional negligence in the death of a crewmember following a 1997 in-flight turbulence incident. The pilot was later found not-guilty of the charges, but his career and reputation were irreparably damaged.
There are many more examples. These cases all support the notion that crewmembers cannot succumb to complacency and be must remain vigilant at all times while on duty. Even though a pilot may not be directly responsible for the cause of the crash that does not preclude him/her from being charged or even jailed following an accident or incident.
It is also important to remember that countries do not share common laws in regard to the rights and trial procedures of someone charged with criminal liability, especially non-citizen defendants. In general terms negligence is defined as, “The failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation.” This legalese translates into, “any conduct that falls below the legal standard established to protect others against unreasonable risk of harm.” [See Black’s Law Dictionary, Garner p. 1061.]
The usual standard by which action or inaction on the part of the crewmember is measured against for a professional pilot would be that of generally accepted procedures in the aviation industry (such as an ICAO standard) or that of the jurisdiction in which the incident occurred. In the latter situation it is difficult to ascertain exactly what the standard of measure will be; however, factors that will be considered include: company operations specifications and policies as well as the rules set forth by the governing authority for the jurisdiction you are operating in. On a long international flight this will encompass several jurisdictions.
Even by following all of the proper procedures there is no guaranty that charges will be not brought against a crewmember in the event of an accident or incident. It is important to always have access to legal counsel. Crewmembers should check with their operator as to what legal support services will be supplied on their behalf or identify their own counsel with knowledge and experience in aviation cases.
Remember too, that all crewmembers may be subject to the same liability for the actions or inactions of fellow crewmember. Whether you are the Pilot in Command (PIC), Second in Command (SIC), Pilot Flying (PF) or Pilot Not Flying (PNF) your actions and inactions will be closely scrutinized.
To mitigate potential exposure to legal liability I suggest crewmembers follow this non-exhaustive list of good operating practices:
- Follow your company’s standard operating procedures;
- Strictly adhere to all rules and regulations (a common example is eliminating non-essential communications below 10,000 feet);
- Use and adhere to all normal, abnormal and emergency checklists;
- Adhere to MEL and CDL limitations;
- Go around if you are not stabilized as defined in your company’s operational specifications on final approach;
- Do not attempt a takeoff or landing into know or suspected conditions that exceed the limitations for the aircraft you are operating;
- Use good CRM skills;
- Use accepted ICAO phraseology when communicating with ATC;
- Put the seat belt sign on before entering areas of known or suspected turbulence;
- Expect and demand the same level of professionalism from your colleagues as you do from yourself.
About Michael W. Johnson
Mr. Johnson is the founder, President & CEO and a member of the board of directors for Paramount Aviation Resources Group. Mr. Johnson’s flight experience includes international and domestic operations throughout Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America. Mr. Johnson served as the Chief Pilot in Honolulu, Hawaii for JALWays (a subsidiary of Japan Airlines). Mr. Johnson holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Clemson University and a Juris Doctorate law degree from Concord University School of Law.