In many countries, criminal prosecution of those involved in aviation accidents is the rule, not the exception. For example, the French courts began a criminal investigation almost immediately after the crash of Air France Flight 447. The Indonesian legal system convicted a Garuda Airlines 737 pilot of negligence and sentenced him to two years in prison following a 2007 crash in Jakarta. And a French court convicted a US mechanic of involuntary manslaughter for causing the July 2000 crash of the Air France Concorde. The mechanic got 15 months.
This week a Brazilian court convicted two American pilots of negligence for their role in the midair collision involving a Embraer Legacy and a Gol Airlines 737 over the jungles of Brazil in 2006. That court handed each pilot a four year suspended jail sentence.
Why are foreign courts so quick to turn aviation accidents into criminal cases?
Simple. The US legal system focuses on requiring those responsible for a crash to compensate their victims. When that happens, victims feel that, to some extent, justice has been served. The legal systems of many other countries, however, do not really concern themselves with compensating victims. Thus, to make things right, someone must be punished criminally and handed a jail sentence. Even if it was “just an accident.”
Either system may serve the interests of "justice." But the US system better serves the interests of safety. By taking the profit out of carelessness, it gives the airlines a monetary incentive to be safe. The systems of other countries, however, actually impede the interests of safety. That’s because criminal prosecutions cause those involved in aviation accident investigations to "clam up" for fear of ending up in jail. That makes it only more difficult to determine the cause of an aviation accident and, most importantly, to bring about the changes necessary to prevent similar accidents from happening again in the future.