With a nickname of the "Sunshine State," Florida boasts an ideal climate for aviation. Unfortunately, a higher proportion of licensed pilots and plane owners also means a greater likelihood of accidents. Contrary to popular perception that most air accidents involve major airline crashes, the truth is that accidents involving private planes and helicopters have killed nearly 45,000 people since 1964, nearly nine times that of those killed in passenger airline crashes.
When aircraft accidents occur, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducts investigations to determine what or who caused the malfunction leading to the crash. The conclusions of the Board's report also have repercussions for victims and their families in later civil litigation. Because federal law prohibits the use of probable cause findings in a lawsuit, parties must conduct their own investigations into a crash in order to meet the threshold evidence requirement of filing a claim in court.
In order to be able to meet this requirement, parties must have access to information relevant to the crash such as records, documents, factual reports, and other evidence. Under current regulations, the NTSB allows the investigator-in-charge (IIC), at his or her discretion, to invite third parties to assist in its fact finding mission. This creates a situation where air carriers and aircraft component manufacturers are frequently invited to be part of the investigation while aviation accident victims and their representatives are shut-out from the proceedings.
While the NTSB has an important mission of promoting aviation safety, that mission should not displace the constitutionally protected right to access the civil justice system. In fact, the civil justice system works in tandem with the NTSB's objectives by holding companies accountable for defective products as well as for providing just compensation for victims. Access to trial by jury ensures that victims are appropriately compensated for their injuries.
Conversely, when victims cannot obtain remedies in court due to failure to meet statutes of limitations or show probable cause for an accident because they have been excluded from NTSB investigations by the IIC, other avenues of compensation are frequently sought. Specifically, without the ability to recover financially, victims will often turn to Medicare and Medicaid to defray the costs of medical bills.
Rather than restrict access to investigation information, the NTSB should provide standard procedures to allow victims and their representatives access in the event that a statute of limitations date is nearing and the investigation has yet to conclude. To insure against the possibility of premature public release of sensitive documents, protective orders or confidentiality agreements should be signed by all parties to the investigation, which can limit the scope of any release solely for litigation purposes.
Victims and their families should not have to suffer twice: once in the aftermath of aviation accidents and again when their claims against wrongdoers are denied due to inability to access NTSB investigation materials. If you or a loved one was injured in an aviation accident, contact the Pittman Firm to schedule a complimentary consultation with a Panama City injury attorney to guarantee your access to justice.