Clients often ask: "Shouldn't we wait for the National Transportation Safety Board to finish its report before deciding whether to bring a lawsuit?" Sometimes, that makes sense. But most of the time, waiting is not in the client's best interests. Here are four reasons not to wait:
1. The NTSB's Findings are Seldom Unbiased. The NTSB doesn't have the engineering expertise or financial resources to investigate an accident on its own. So it asks for technical help from the aircraft manufacturers. For example, if a case involves an engine failure, the NTSB will ask the engine manufacturer for help in determining why the engine failed. Not surprisingly, the manufacturer seldom points out to the NTSB evidence suggesting that its own product may have caused the accident. The conflict of interest inherent in the NTSB's investigations mean that the NTSB's final reports almost always favor the big industry players.
2. The NTSB Seldom Tackles the "Why" Questions. More and more, the NTSB's report describes what happened, without really saying why it happened. But the "why" questions are the ones that matter most.
As an example, in one case, an EMS helicopter crashed and all aboard were killed. A year and a half later, the NTSB published its probable cause report concluding that one of the helicopter's rotor blades came apart in flight. That, however, was obvious from the outset. Only during the lawsuit that followed the crash was it discovered that the blade came apart because, months before the accident, a mechanic had botched a repair to the blade, weakening its internal structure. The NTSB never interviewed the mechanic involved. It was satisfied that it had determined the "cause" of the accident when it figured out that the rotor blade failed. As far as the NTSB was concerned, once it determined that the blade failed, the case was closed. The NTSB told us what happened, but not why.
3. The NTSB's Accident Report Isn't "Binding" on Anyone. The NTSB's conclusions have no legal effect, and they are inadmissible it court. So we can't just rely on the NTSB to do our work for us; we have to conduct our own investigation. Waiting for the report just puts us behind.
4. We Could be Waiting Forever. It usually takes the NTSB one to four years, sometimes even longer, to come out with a report. The NTSB is so slow that if we begin a lawsuit right away, it often can be settled and sometimes even tried to verdict before the NTSB report is completed. On the other hand, if we wait for the NTSB's report before starting our own investigation, witnesses' memories will have faded and important documents may be lost or destroyed. The wreckage may end up being scrapped before our experts examine it. Worst of all, statutes of limitation may run on the claim, preventing us from filing any lawsuit at all regardless of what the cause of the accident turns out to be.
The NTSB investigators are good people dedicated to aviation safety. They perform a very difficult job under harsh conditions. They are, however, underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed. They just don't have the necessary resources or expertise, especially when it comes to investigating general aviation accidents. Sad to say -- NTSB reports are seldom worth waiting for.