Mackinac Island, Michigan, located in Lake Huron, is 8.2 miles around. The only way onto the island is by boat or, better yet, general aviation aircraft. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island.  Everyone gets around by horse-drawn carriage or bicycle.  It was a great venue for the Lawyer-Pilots Bar Association’s 50th Anniversary Meeting on July 8-12.

Some conference highlights–

National Transportation Safety Board.

The NRobert Zumwalt - NTSB Board Memberational Transportation Safety Board has hundreds of employees. The Board, itself, however, consists of only 5 members. One of the members is Robert Zumwalt.   Zumwalt, who serves as the Board’s vice chair, spoke to the group and gave us some useful insight into the Board’s inner workings.

Vice chairman Zumwalt also shared lessons he has learned from his work. One is that many accidents seem to follow from a “Normalization of Deviance.” Overly "relaxed" crew members begin to accept small deviations from Standard Operating Procedures as no big deal.  The deviations become the new norm.  That leads to trouble. In fact, Zumwalt says that crews who intentionally deviate from Standard Operating Procedures are about 3 times as likely to commit additional "errors of consequence."  

Jury Verdicts.

According to Insurance industry representatives: The unpredictability in jury verdicts confuses and discourages aviation business owners. Victims should not be allowed to sue unless the defendant violated a federal aviation regulation. If there is no violation, the lawsuit should be “pre-empted.” (I’ve discussed pre-emption previously here.) Business owners would then know exactly how to avoid liability: simply comply with the FAA regulations.

According to Plaintiffs lawyers: 95% of aviation lawsuits settle out of court because both sides agree what the likely jury verdict will be. It is only when the two sides, represented by experienced aviation lawyers, disagree on what the jury verdict will be that cases end up being tried.  By definition, then, the only cases that reach the jury are the “unpredictable” ones. Pre-emption is a bad idea because the regulations are minimum safety standards only. The regulations set the bar too low. Those involved in aviation should be held to a higher standard than the bare letter of the law. The flying public expects more when it comes to their safety.

Criminalization of Aviation Negligence

A growing trend to “criminalize” aviation negligence only hurts aviation safety. If, for example, an aviation mechanic has to worry about criminal prosecution, he will not speak with the NTSB after an accident. When the FBI gets involved, investigations tend only to grind to a halt. The best chance of finding out an accident’s cause is through the civil process, not the criminal process. Both the insurance industry and the plaintiffs lawyers seem to agree on this one: criminalizing aviation negligence hinders, rather than promotes, aviation safety. (I’ve written before about criminalization of negligence here.)

Biggest Change in Aviation Law in Past 50 Years?

Possibly the General Aviation Revitalization Act, or GARA.  GARA, discussed here, bars suits against aviation manufacturers for defective products that are more than 18 years old. It has cut down on litigation tremendously, but has left many of those injured by a defective aviation product without any means of obtaining compensation from those responsible.

The trip here from the San Francisco Bay Area took about 10 hours in the Cirrus. The trip home should be a bit longer. Thanks to LPBA President Susan Hofer for overseeing a great conference.