Air Law Court Case Brief

Introduction

Safety is an issue of great concern to each transport industry. In this case, it is a multi-faceted activity, which involves all fields of aviation and affects everyone in the airline sector. Accidents emanate from a chain of undesirable events. Therefore, in order to overcome the recurrence of such incidents, there is a need to create a safety occurrence reporting framework. Hence, aviation professionals are required to report and document all related accidents and incidents.

As a result, it is the duty of the aviation staff to be dedicated and to completely contribute to the safety investigation of the forwarded occurrences. Thus, this paper focuses on the ValuJet Flight 592 case, which is an aviation accident that happened as result of professional aviation error and describes the actions that were taken to bring the responsible individuals to justice.

 

ValuJet Flight 592

ValuJet is an aircraft that was scheduled to land in Atlanta at Miami International Airport in 1996 May 11. However, the flight was short-lived, since soon after the departure a fire started on the DC-9 airplane, and within a few minutes, the aircraft plunged into Florida Everglades. Consequently, all 105 passengers and five crew members died in the crash (Fitzgerald, 2009).

After conducting the investigations, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the accident resulted from a fire that had started in the oxygen canisters that were in the cargo hold. The board discovered that the canisters were not properly secured, labeled, and packaged. Moreover, the outdated oxygen generators, some of which were half-full of highly volatile chemicals, had been retrieved from two other ValuJet aircraft and were supposed to be taken back to the airline’s home base in Atlanta.

Usually, the generators are filled with chemicals that emit oxygen, when they are burning. In most airplanes, they serve as a source of oxygen for passengers when the cabin pressure drops. Thus, they can, yield temperatures of up to 260 degrees Celsius. Therefore, NTSB concluded that maybe the cartons that were holding the canisters developed problems during the departure, and at least one of them ignited, spreading the fire to the rest (Fitzgerald, 2009).

The crash of this flight led to the first criminal trial over a U.S. airline accident in history. However, despite the severances of the accident, the charges against the perpetrators were made only in three years, on July 13, 1999. The Attorney’s Office of Florida State brought the charges against those who were involved in the ValuJet DC-9 disaster. Under Florida law, the charges encompassed 110 counts of third-degree murder as well as manslaughter. Moreover, the charges also included a federal indictment, which entailed 24 criminal counts, issued to the accused by the Attorney’s office in Miami (Fitzgerald, 2009).

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The NTSB Conclusions

In line with the ValuJet aircraft crash, the NTSB concluded that the primary parties of the accident, who shared the responsibility for it, are the ValuJet airline, SabreTech, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). ValuJet was a new airline, and the FAA failed to regulate it adequately. SabreTech was an aircraft maintenance company, contracted by ValuJet airline to undertake maintenance operations for its aircraft. Three of SabreTech’s employees, mainly the vice president of the company and two mechanics, also were charged in this case. SabreTech and its workers were accused of mismanaging dangerous materials, loading a destructive device on a commercial airplane, as well as of making misleading statements to the FAA and the Department of Transportation (Fitzgerald, 2009).

Irrespective of the fact that investigations, conducted by NTSB, revealed that most of SabreTech workers transported the oxygen generators by transferring them from two old ValuJet aircraft to the Flight 592, only three of them took the responsibility for the fatal crash. The reason is that the firm’s director of maintenance coerced the employees to skip the necessary security steps and deceitfully declare that work had been completed. Moreover, these workers signed work cards, which indicated that they had fastened caps on generators when actually they had not. Instead, they taped over the pull strings in order to prevent them from exploding (Fitzgerald, 2009).

In fact, the whole blame for the crash was put on SabreTech and its three employees, but the accident could have been influenced by some other factors. For instance, even though the investigation showed that the generators were the possible cause of the crash, the plane itself could have been the reason for the accident. It can be the result of the fact that DC-9 aircraft was said to have several mechanical and electrical problems. Besides, the aircraft was an old plane and neither its autopilot nor its intercom was functioning. The flight attendants relied on a bullhorn to communicate with the passengers (Fitzgerald, 2009).

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The Jury System

The legal system, applied in this case, was the Jury system. In a law case, the jury system has to determine the facts of an issue. NTSB conducted the investigations concerning the accident, while the offices of Attorney in Florida and Miami brought the charges against the involved parties with the help of the prosecutors. Finally, it was the mandate of the grand jury of the appellate and federal district courts to make the final decisions regarding the outcomes of the case. The federal officials were tasked with issuing arrest warrants to the criminals (Fitzgerald, 2009).

The Verdict of the Court

In my opinion, the verdict of the court regarding the Flight 592 crash was fair and just. In the context of the verdict, the court of appeal acquitted the Sabretech employees but fined SabreTech’s parent company with an amount of $500,000 that was paid to corporations in order to promote safety in the aviation industry. The court’s decision was fair because the mechanics may not have intended to make mistakes during labeling, packaging, and loading of the canisters. In fact, the maintenance company had failed to provide proper training, concerning the handling of such chemicals. Besides, it is not evident that solely SabreTech firm caused the crash since the plane that had been used by ValuJet was old and had many faults that could have caused the accident too.

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ValuJet Company

The ValuJet Flight 592 brought several challenges to the SabreTech employees, ValuJet Company, and the airline itself. This fatal accident destroyed the professional reputation of three employees. Even though the court discharged them, their careers were already ruined, since no firm would risk being associated with people, who could have been aware that they were risking the lives of innocent citizens. The ValuJet airline was affected by the whole incident to the same extent as its employees. People started to question the ability of the firm to provide safe services and thus, the company experienced a crisis in its operations. The incident affected the country as well so that the U.S. government started to make criminal investigations of aviation professionals (Prentice, 2013).

the SabreTech Employees

The ValuJet Flight 592 crash affected the profession of convicted mechanics significantly. For instance, the employees lost their jobs in the company and it became impossible for them to acquire employment elsewhere. Additionally, the impact of the case did not influence only these three employees. All other workers at SabreTech also felt the effects of the case, since the company as a whole was convicted of the accident. Moreover, the prosecutors in the country can never rest until they make a case out of any accident that may have occurred in any other airline, in the result of an individual error or a mistake, similar to the ValuJet accident (Prentice, 2013).

Aviation Professionals

According to Abeyratne (2012), when aviation professionals develop a fear of being convicted, they tend to be warier and guarded, thus they hesitate to report some problems and errors. The presence of criminal proceedings that take place after the crash of Flight 592 may have a severe impact on the aviation profession. The reason is that the employees are afraid to participate in safety investigation and further advancement of aviation safety through the reporting framework. Consequently, there will be an inadequate amount of available safety information that may have major costs, considering the fact that the most practical approach to developing safety is the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past and to avert their repetition.

Just Culture

Just Culture is a concept used by some companies, in which all employees are encouraged to offer their suggestions and feel comfortable to provide safety-related information. It is a situation, in which workers understand they will be treated equally and justly, depending on their actions, rather than on the outcomes of those actions, in case of both positive and negative safety situations. When the professionals are being prosecuted for their mistakes, a Just Culture insists that systemic factors (not merely personal actions) must be considered in the assessment of safety performance and human behavior. A robust Just Culture in each aviation organization is seen as a reason for the effective safety culture (La Duke, 2012).

Conclusion

In my opinion, Just Culture is a technique that should be widely used, and it does not hinder accountability. It ensures that failures and problems are reported with openness and enables information sharing due to the absence of fear. Therefore, Just Culture is significant in the formation of a safety culture.

Aviation accidents emanate from a variety of reasons. Some of them are caused by human errors, while others by such factors as, for example, mechanical failures of the aircraft. Therefore, proper investigations should be conducted in order to ensure that the law does not punish the wrong people. For instance, in the case of Flight 592, the crash could have been caused by the old condition of the plane, rather than by the factors, determined by NTSB.

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