In May of 1996, a ValuJet Airlines McDonnell Douglas MD-80 regional airliner en route from Miami to Atlanta burst into flames shortly after takeoff and crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 passengers and crew. The explosion causing the fire was linked to improperly packaged, obsolete oxygen generators loaded in the cargo compartment. Criminal suit was soon filed against SabreTech, the facility that regularly performed maintenance for ValuJet’s operation and was responsible for the overhaul of the MD-80 aircraft in question, on the basis of criminal recklessness in the storage and packaging of the used oxygen generators. SabreTech was partially acquitted on the grounds that there was no criminal intent, but guilt was also remanded for the charge of SabreTech willfully neglecting to instruct its employees on the proper storage and packaging procedures of hazardous materials—of which the oxygen generators included. This case was handled in district court as well as appealed in a U.S. Circuit Court: United States of America v. SabreTech 271 F. 3d 1018 (2001).
ValuJet enlisted SabreTech’s services to overhaul and provide major modifications to the aircraft in question before introducing it to their regular fleet. SabreTech identified the oxygen generators on the MD-80 as being obsolete and replaced them; however, the procedure for storage of the containers—different for most aircraft parts as they contain sodium chlorate, a chemical classified as a hazardous material and subject to regulations under 49 C.F.R. §§ 171-180 (2001)—was willfully ignored by SabreTech employees during the maintenance operation, and, as such, was also improperly tagged and packaged for air transport on the ill-fated Flight 592. To aggravate the matter, ValuJet also provided SabreTech with explicit instructions on the handling, care, and packaging of the oxygen generators, which was also recklessly ignored by SabreTech.
It would seem that the grounds for criminal action against SabreTech are rather solid in that the company willfully and recklessly neglected to follow procedures outlined not only by ValuJet (in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) regulations regarding the transport of hazardous materials by air), but also by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act of 1977 (“HTMA”). Unfortunately for the Plaintiff, SabreTech was acquitted on criminal actions on two technicalities. First, SabreTech avoided prosecution under the Federal Aviation Regulations (Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, “FARs”) regarding recklessly causing hazardous materials to be transported in violation of any of the FARs because the statutes that were violated were enacted under a different governing authority, the HTMA, and were not subject to the provisions of the FARs. Secondly, SabreTech was acquitted from prosecution under the HTMA due to the fact that the courts found that SabreTech did not intend for the oxygen generators and subsequently cause the deaths of 110 people. Simply the lack of any criminal intent was sufficient enough to prevent criminal proceedings.
SabreTech was, however, convicted of recklessly failing to train its employees on the proper procedures of storage and packaging hazardous materials, and faced punishment in the form of corporate fines. Unfortunately, as the provisions of the appellate decision nullified any criminal action resulting in wrongful death, the survivors of the victims of Flight 592 were entitled to no reparations or damages from SabreTech.
This case illustrates a blatant example of the inadequacy of the Justice System in the United States to fairly provide restitution in what can be described as a flagrant and cavalier dismissal of safety regulations. One hundred and ten innocent people died a horrible death due to immoral and unethical actions taken by individuals within a corporate structure with no real method of recourse for the survivors. SabreTech was acquitted of any criminal charges due to a technicality in the law requiring the prosecution to show an actual malicious intent. SabreTech used the “Oops! My bad!” defense to avoid being responsible for the wrongful death of 110 people on May 10, 1996 simply because the law stated that not only does the defendant have to cause the deaths through their own recklessness, but also has to be proven to intend for the deaths to occur. SabreTech was fully aware of the dangers in their method of packaging the oxygen generators, but since they did not intend for the generators to explode (even though they were aware that—as they were packaged—they could explode), criminal intent was not sufficient and those charges were dropped.
Speciale, Esq., C.P.A., Raymond C. Fundamentals of Aviation Law. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
United States of America v. SabreTech, 271 F. 3d 1018 (2001).