Criminalizing Accidents?

August 6, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

fla_crash_on_beachThere was a heart-breaking event in Florida last week when a Piper Cherokee landed on the beach after the engine stopped, for as yet unknown reasons. The pilot, maneuvering to land, apparently failed to see a young father and his daughter walking along the shore. Both died in the forced landing although the pilot and his passenger escaped uninjured. The pilot claims he saw no one, but a web vigilante flash-mob formed within minutes calling for charges of manslaughter to murder and the banning of personal flight.

A few of the comments:

“Private aircraft have to be banned. Hundreds crash every year and people on the ground [get] killed. They also are responsible for all the air traffic congestion in the skies.”

“That incompetent idiot of a pilot needs to go to jail for murder. He walks away without a freaking scratch but kills an innocent man and gravely injures a little girl? He deserves to rot in prison.”

“These pilots are crazy. One landed on the same highway twice in one week. This pilot should have tried to put the plane down on the water to avoid killing someone on the beach as he did.”

“The pilot was clearly intoxicated.” (There was no evidence to support that assertion.)

The verbal stoning goes on for pages. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Guess that conflicts with what passes for free speech these days. Culpability will be determined soon enough, and then the issue of negligence will be determined.

A legal definition of negligence is “A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.” Cornell Law School goes on to explain, “Five elements are required to establish a prima facie case of negligence: the existence of a legal duty to exercise reasonable care; a failure to exercise reasonable care; cause in fact of physical harm by the negligent conduct; physical harm in the form of actual damages; and proximate cause, a showing that the harm is within the scope of liability.”

The distinction between criminal and civil negligence is more nuanced. says, “Civil negligence, according to many law systems, is the breach of a duty to care. Someone who is found guilty of civil negligence is found to have not acted in the way a reasonable person would in the same situation. The negligent act must result in injury or loss, and often falls under tort laws. Criminal negligence is different because the defendant is accused of intentionally acting in reckless fashion without regard to the safety of others, and as such, the offense falls under criminal codes.”

Leaving legal complexity to the specialists, a couple of thoughts come to mind. None have any basis in fact because the facts are not yet known. Running out of fuel might be considered a criminally negligent act but failure of a mechanical part might not. Then again, it might if the part were known to fail and was required to be fixed. The devil is in the details, and we won’t have facts for at least a year.

The first comment in this web diatribe is more dangerous than it might appear because it contains a minute element of truth: There are hundreds of GA crashes per year. But on average, less than one tenth of one percent involve any injury to innocents on the ground. Based on a percentage of estimated flights, the number is immeasurable and irrelevant except to those who are tragically involved. Wonder how automobiles would fare if a similar standard of care were applied? This calamity is the perfect example of a low probability, high consequence event. The critical difference between innocence and guilt lies in how well we practice the art and science of safety. Perhaps our ability to communicate those efforts is vital as well.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Robby Meadows

    Hearth breaking story both for the families and for the pilots. What if anyone of us was the pilot and had to live with this event? The AOPA does a great job in promoting a culture of flight safety in GA. But all pilots have to embrace it. I’m not referring to the accident in Florida, but rather my home GA airport in Tennessee where more pilots than not refuse to make the appropriate radio calls much less turn on their transponders. The FAA only requires a flight review every 2 years, but I believe should require x hours of flight safety training or similar refresher in addition to the reviews. That way those clowns who think they are responsible to no one and fly in their own world, will at least be required to attend safety training whether they want to or not. Better for me, and all the rest of us when we fly IMO.

  • Douglas Buis

    Robby, I agree with what you said. In the case of your own GA airport. I stress to you, that as a fellow user of that airport, perhaps you should be the squeaky wheel of change with your local airport authority. If you see something bout being done right, take reasonable steps at reporting individuals, or at least gently reminding these individuals that it is their obligation to ensure safety of everyone in the airspace from being conflicted upon by their own negligence.

  • http://AOPA Bob Casian

    We know this. You are preaching to the wrong people. This article should be in every news paper in the country. You have to reach the un-informed…

  • Eric Davis

    I read some of those blog posts cited here shortly after the accident. I was angered and sickened to hear the ill-willed and uniformed opinions of so many. I was tempted to respond but realized that those people who were so quick to condemn the pilot in this accident, and quite frankly all of GA, are lost causes, so-to-speak. I mean there is no point in arguing with them because it will likely not produce any positive results.

    I thought more about what to do and it occurred to me that all of us, every single concerned and responsible pilot, should do more to expose young people to aviation.

    The best outcome is that we end up with more pilots but at the very least we end up with a young person that grows up to be an informed and rational adult where the risks and rewards of General Aviation are concerned.

  • Aaron Holton

    Bruce, it isn’t just the unwashed, many pilot’s feel their approach to safety is the only way and anyone who deviates (regardless of experience or reasons) is a wild eyed maniac.

    There was also a discussion in the forums where the same view as the story commenters was brought forth. Essentially the people on the ground died, the pilot lived, so the pilot should go to jail for the rest of his natural life. Bang the gavel, next!

  • john

    Whenever anyone dies during an incident involving GA it is not good. Unintended injuries or death to those on the ground caused by GA is not good for our image. We do not know all the facts in this case and the investigation will revel most of those facts and I am sure that if criminal negligence was involved the authorities will take the appropriate actions and likewise if there was not criminal negligence. Unfortunately the lawyers most likely were circling like sharks before the dust settled looking to get part of the action from any civil liability.

    Unfortunately several years ago a similar incident happened along the east coast.

    I have wondered why our small planes do not have an external horn similar to automobiles to warn others in cases like this or more often while taxiing, get the lineman’s attention, warn of impending start (even though we all call clear), bird encounters etc.

  • Jim

    The anonymity of the WEB brings out many vigilantes and goes as far as hatred at times. Commentary is often contrived with verbal sputtering and void of fact or even comprehension of reality.

    The comments section of the WEB is a tool often fueled by a story or perspective from the media itself and, just like the comments section of your article, persons speak freely with or without prejudice knowing their identity is guarded from the general public’s eyes.

    Take away the anonymity of the comments section, making proof of name and ID a check item and the presence of effective commentary usually prevails.

    Most if not all newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” upholds such authentication and “letters” although sometimes off the mark in opinion are never filled with hatred and personal attack.

    Hence, it’s difficult to take social media and the WEB seriously, including such goofy things as WEB based petitions and most of the comments regarding this unfortunate accident.

  • R Haar

    and here in Orlando some fool managed to crash into a day care center and kill some kids …… so, do we ban cars? Or houses that cannot withstand a collision?

    I suspect that the pilot in this case saw a deserted strip of beach to put down on after an engine failure. Water ditching a fixed gear airplane is really a problem and I am sure he did not see 2 people until it was way too late, if he saw them at all. So he made the best choice under the circumstances.

  • Ron Rapp

    Online lynchings are de rigueur these days. No surprise there. But I do agree with Aaron’s comment that pilots sometimes take an equally hard line about how flying should be done: their way or the highway.

  • Ray J

    About 3000 are butchered every month on the Lawless HWYS soooooooooo.
    Just the idea you can yack on your walkie talkie while driving is insane.

  • Lee Gilbert

    It appears to me that this is an image problem as much as anything else. Pilots are considered to be too rich to be”normal” people, and so any transgression by them is usually blown out of context. That isn’t to say that a drunk driver plowing into bystanders wouldn’t be crucified as well. People seem to love to draw lines in the stand and become polarized. Our minority community of pilots need to project a more correct image of “normalcy” and take the responsibility for safe flight more seriously.

  • Rationalist

    Comments from this flash mob indicate a class warfare mentality between the haves and the have nots, produced by our government of “change”.

    Be sure to thank your low information and narcissistic self absorbed single issue voter friends for these priceless moments…

    Remind them every chance you get that Lenin described them as “useful idiots”…

  • Ken

    People get hit daily by autos….It is an accident …..

  • Sarah Ashmore

    I wonder if all those people calling airplanes dangerous killers of innocent people have ever stopped to consider the carnage that is caused by personal automobiles. There are people being hit and killed by cars all the time for varous reasons from mechanical failure to stupidity of drunk driving. Yes this was a tragic occurance but just how many none participants get killed by GA crashes when compared to automobiles ?

  • Mike

    The truly amazing thing is, I read a lot of comments like those cited above… by pilots on the Pilots of America message board. I was astounded that PILOTS were saying these things. I tried telling them more than once that the ignorant public and the media would do a good enough job of trashing GA without our help, to no avail.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Thanks everybody for weighing in. Lots of good thoughts – The web is changing things and not necessarily for the better. As pilots we need to be less insular and work on outreach. We’ve had prior discussion about the pattern police and there’s a balance there as well.

    Again – thanks.