How is this woman NOT legally responsible for this death?

This could have feasibly gone partially into GQ, and partially into IMHO as well as here in GD. I flipped a three-sided coin, and it came up GD.

Here’s the skinny, you can read more from the NTSB.

This incident occurred in October of 1998 in Roswell, a northern suburb of Atlanta. A pilot was flying a Piper PA-32R-300 (I don’t know very much about airplanes, but I assume it is a small or very small passenger plane – I’m sure I’ll get corrected if that’s not the case.) She starts having trouble, and she is forced to make an emergency landing on highway GA-400 at around 6.30pm (middle of rush hour traffic). She gets the plane on the ground, and it goes about 150 yards before colliding with a Mazda 626. The Mazda burst into flames and the driver was killed.

Now, I have talked to a friend who has his pilot’s license, and he claims that she did not break any laws at all, and that given the same circumstances, he would have done the same thing. From what he said, that type of plane needs more room to land than most small planes, and that the highway was her only option. The highway is lined with trees and it is typical suburbia surrounding the highway in that part of town. So, her only choice was to let the plane down into the trees or to try to land on the highway. Granted, the chances of her survival had she tried to take the plane down in the trees is minimal. I don’t fault her for the decision she made, but it is just unfathomable to me that she is not responsible (legally) for the death of that Mazda driver. I think that in this case, if you are going to make the decision of risking others to keep yourself alive, you need to be held responsible if your decision results in another’s death.

Does anyone have any insight here? This just blows my mind.

Why do you think the pilot should be responsible?

I’m not a lawyer, but I understand enough about physics to know that when an airplane has a mechanical problem, it’s coming down whether you like it or not. It’s not like pulling over to fix a flat tire.

Would you have sacrificed your own life to avoid the posibility of killing anyone else? probably not. Like any reasonable person, you would try to put the plane down safely in a clear spot. It’s unfortunate that a car was in her way, but as they say, tough shit.

What purpose would punishing the pilot serve, other than giving the family of the victim a sense of retribution over some situation they couldn’t control? She’s not a dangerous criminal. It certainly wasn’t an intentional act.

I don’t see why this “blows your mind”. What blows my mind is how people allow every excuse in the world for commiting a CRIMINAL act (murder, rape, etc) yet still try to criminalize accidents that, while unfortunate, are nobody’s fault.

It’s very easy to sit back on your couch and be like “if you are going to make the decision of risking others to keep yourself alive, you need to be held responsible if your decision results in another’s death”. Unless you’ve been in the in the same situation, I don’t think you can really judge the pilot of that plane.

I’m not a pilot and I feel completely comfortable when I judge the pilots actions. The pilot was immediatly faced with a life or death situation and had to make a decision quickly. It is a decision that she had to make under stress and apparantly the options were to land in the trees meaning certain death or land in the street and probably live. I’d have picked the street.


Are you asking why she is not criminally responsible for the driver’s death? That’s easy, from a legal standpoint: the pilot did not have the necessary mental state in order to have committed a crime. She did not “intend” to kill anyone. You could argue that she was being “reckless” by landing the plane where she did, but recklessness is relative, and her actions seem quite reasonable in the emergency context you described. (I am simplifying a bit, but you get the picture.)

If you’re asking whether she will be civilly responsible for the driver’s death, that depends on whether she was “negligent” in landing the airplane on the road. Again, given the emergency context, even negligence seems questionable, although my conclusion could change if I knew all the facts.

Simple. She made a conscious decision that resulted in an innocent person’s death.

Color me impressed. I never implied that it was like pulling over to fix a flat tire. She made the decision to land on the highway. She could have decided to not do that. I’m not saying she wasn’t under high stress when she made it, and the NTSB report even said that she didn’t want to at first, and that the ATC person on the radio advised her to do it. My point is not so much that she made this choice, just that there is no legal recourse.

I’m not sure what I would do. And, it was not “a clear spot” – It was rush hour traffic.

Great point. :rolleyes:

Did she intend to kill someone? No.
Was she negligent? In my opinion, yes.

What are you talking about? Who is “allowing every excuse in the world for commiting a CRIMINAL act”? If she had crashed the plane into some trees and died, that would have been an “accident that was nobody’s fault”. As it stands, she made a decision that cost another person their life.

I’m not judging the pilot, I’m judging our set of laws that said she did nothing wrong.

there’s no way i would save my own life by directly causing the death of others unless they were my opponents in a fight. if the choices were ditch in the trees and probably kill myself or land on a highway during rush hour and likely kill one or more innocent people, i would absolutely pick the trees. and i’m not even that brave.

i think whether she should be held legally responsible should depend on why she was flying. if she was using the plane as a necessary means of transportation to work, then it’s arguable that she was just another commuter and accidents happen. if she was just tooling around for fun, then she should be held responsible for those deaths. i think there is an inherent danger in flying since even something as simple as a mechanical stall can bring you crashing to the ground. the risks of any potentially dangerous hobby should not be automatically transferred to those who don’t choose that hobby.


From the link above, “The purpose of the flight was to transport a cargo of bank checks.”

As an aside, are pilots required to carry liability insurance on their aircraft?

from reading the link it sounds like the flight was business related. i don’t think as a pilot of a business flight she should be legally required to bring down the plane in a deserted area at the expense of her own life, unless it can be proven that the the mechanical error forcing the plane down was due to her negligence. the report indicates she was not negligent in this area:


N8554C, a Piper PA-32R-300, serial number 32R-7680122, was registered to and operated by Air Carriers, Inc. According to the operator’s records the airplane was manufactured in 1976. The operator’s records reflected that as of October 28, 1998, the airplane had 9,468.8 total flight hours. The last annual inspection was conducted on August 12, 1998, using a Piper inspection checklist. The manufacturers suggested engine time between overhauls was 2,000 hours. According to the operator’s records, the engine overhaul was due at 9,531.6, and it had 1,937.2 hours since the last overhaul. Total engine hours were 3,933.3.**

however, it does show negligence in another area:

The emergency procedures section of the Pilot Operating Handbook contained the following procedure for POWER OFF LANDING-GEAR UP LANDING: For gear up landing , proceed as follows when committed to landing: Ignition Off Master Switch Off Fuel selector Off Mixture idle cut-off Seat belt and harness tight

from the report: “In attempts to maintain performance, she elected to leave both the landing gear and flaps in the retracted positions, and was able to maintain control of the airplane until impact with the highway. The pilot reported that she did not turn off any switches or selectors prior to impact.”

so the question is, did her failure to shut off the switches result in a condition that caused the death of the mazda driver? i couldn’t tell from the report.

You really want to see this poor girl behind bars? If you don’t choose to kill yourself in order to avoid some danger to others, you’re a murderer?

Yeesh, stay the fuck off of my jury. (Insert smiley face.)

Not irrelevantly (is that a word?), from my understanding of aviation and the situation at hand, she did what she was supposed to do.


In this case, “some danger” = death.

I really don’t know how I feel about it. I can say that I probably would have done the same thing she did. I just have a serious problem with the notion that it is ok to kill someone else (who has not threatened your life) to save yourself. I don’t think that’s kosher.

This whole reason I started this thread if to try to get some other perspectives.


“Detached reflection cannot be expected in the presence of an uplifted knife.”-- Oliver Wendell Holmes (I think)

I’m sure you can understand the difference between a conscious decision made under normal circumstances from one made during a life threatening emergency. From the information provided I don’t see how the pilot was criminally negligent.


I admit I didn’t read the link extremely closely; did it say somewhere in there that this woman wasn’t held criminally responsible? If not, how are you sure she wasn’t?

Also, it is possible that she was arrested but a prosecutor didn’t think the State would have a good enough chance of convicting her to make a grand jury, trial, etc., worth it. The family of the Mazda driver would probably have a good shot at a civil suit, though, whether she was actually negligent or not.

Yes, Marc, I do see the difference. It just all goes back to the point I made 3 posts above.

MissBunny, That pilot friend of mine said that he is certain she hadn’t broken any laws at all. He is a very studious type and I’m sure has read up on that sort of thing. Also, I live in the area that this occurred. Once the accident was out of the news, No mention of it was ever made again. While I don’t know for a fact that no charges were brought against her, I am pretty certain they haven’t been.


Then why do you have such a hard time with the idea of her not being guilty of any crime? I don’t think anyone is saying that it is “ok” to kill someone to save your own life. We’re just saying that in some cases, such as this one, that the person isn’t criminally responsible.


*Originally posted by zwaldd *


What possible reason would you have to distinguish between the two? Why would it be more serious if she was just a recreational pilot?

The risk appear to be very minimal. How many times has the average American had an airplane dropped on them? And why should a potentially dangerous method of transportation be excused just because it might be used professionally?


Why not? Are you willing to give up your life for a total stranger?

Like I said before, shit happens. Planes break down. People make mistakes (especially during split-second life or dealth decisions). We don’t really have much control over the world around us. I admit that there are times when someone is clearly negligent, but criminalizing someone just because they survived an accident and someone else didn’t is not “kosher”. People have a natural instinct for survival and shouldn’t legally be expected to sacrifice their own life to avoid putting anyone elses at risk.

The only way you could convince me that this pilot was criminally negligent is if you can give me an alternative course of action she could have taken which would not have resulted in anyones death or serious injury.
Keep in mind that from what you described, she had very few choices in places to land. Im not a pilot, but I do know that the only time pilots land in the street is during extreme emergancies where they can’t safely make it back to the airport.

Are you sure? Have you ever been in such a situation, and chosen likely death (and presumably survived, or I’ve got some news for the GD folks :slight_smile: ).

It’s easy to be brave when you’re not directly in a situation…perhaps the pilot would have said the same thing as you, had you asked her beforehand.

On a one for one, all other things being equal? No. But if you are engaged in something which has the inherent risk (flying) and you accept those risks (this plane might crash, and there’s a very good chance that I’ll die if it does)? At that point, you want to place the danger from the risk you have assumed on someone else? I’m not so sure about that one.


Because of what I just posted. Here is admittedly ridiculous example, but I think that you’ll get my point. Say Joe Blow is practicing his knife juggling. He messes up and throws a cleaver up in the air, such that it is impossible for him to catch it without it landing in his forehead. Just at this time, you happen to be walking by. Joe Blow assesses the situation, and he is under stress, and “during a life threatening emergency”, he decides to pull you in the way to take the cleaver to the head to save his life, and you die. Now, when Joe started his juggling, he didn’t intend to kill anyone, but because of risks he assumed (and you didn’t), you’re dead. Stupid example, I know, but I can’t come up with a better one right now. But do you see the point I am making?

I see your point, mouthbreather, but I don’t buy it. Your analogy implies that this pilot, when faced with an emergency situation, decided that she would save herself by killing someone else. I think a far better description of the situation is that she knew that her life was in danger and took a calculated risk that she could land on a road without seriously hurting anyone else. The gamble didn’t pay off, obviously, but that’s still far different from consciously deciding to kill someone else to save her own neck.