There 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. Wisegeek.com 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.