Criminal Liability in Aviation Accidents

In addition to a civil claim against individuals or entities for causing an aviation accident, the government may also pursue criminal sanctions. Both the federal government and individual states can impose criminal sanctions in cases involving aviation. Although the classifications and details may vary between them, most states impose criminal sanctions on aviators for reckless conduct that leads to injury, death, or property damage.

Criminal liability is different from civil liability in that, in civil cases, individuals or the government may initiate a claim and punishments are usually limited to fines and damage awards. In a criminal matter, the government brings the case and generally does so in order to seek monetary damages or incarceration of the person or entity accused of the crime. In federal aviation law, the government has the right to bring criminal charges against a party involved in an aviation accident. If a conviction occurs, the result may be punitive damages or time in prison. If a party is found liable in a civil action for punitive damages as well as compensatory damages, it is more likely the state will pursue.

Breaking Aviation Law

Aircraft, owners/operators and commercial airlines are regulated by aviation law. Most aviation law is federal, although states are able to enact some of their own laws related to air travel. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Board (NTSB) are the two most relevant players in federal aviation law.

Aviation laws are intended to maintain safety. Breaking an aviation law may lead to criminal sanctions. There are several things related to aviation that could constitute a criminal offense. For example, if a commercial airline intentionally and consistently fails to comply with regulations, the government could pursue criminal charges. Other examples include a pilot who uses drugs or alcohol prior to flying.

How States Classify Aviation Crimes

Despite the differences between states’ criminal legal codes, there are three common levels at which air travel industry workers may face criminal charges:

  • “Criminal negligence” or “involuntary manslaughter” alleges the creation of a risk to others’ lives and that the risk had foreseeable consequences. The person may recognize the danger his or her behavior creates but fails to alter it.
  • “Manslaughter” alleges the defendant know that the risk of his or her actions may result in death for others, and yet the defendant continued the behavior anyway.
  • “Third degree murder” holds the defendant responsible for causing the death of another while the defendant was committing another felony.

Exposure to Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are imposed if the jury finds the defendant committed a serious and willful offense. If the defendant knowingly put the aircraft in danger by his or her behavior, they may face criminal prosecution. For example, if a manufacturer knowingly used substandard parts, or a pilot flew the aircraft after drinking several alcoholic beverages, or knowingly transported illegal substances.

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