Patriotism and justice are both admirable, but they don’t always co-exist very well. It’s heartening when justice wins out.
I have written before about the difference between crime and human error. Errors, even those that result in tragedy, are going to happen any time humans are involved, despite our best efforts. But it is also very human to want a scapegoat when something goes catastrophically wrong, all the more so when the government takes a less-than-impartial interest in where the blame ultimately rests.
That is why I am glad to see that a French appeals court realized that error is not a crime.
The appeals court overturned a 2010 ruling in which Continental Airlines (since merged with United) and a Continental mechanic, John Taylor, were found guilty of manslaughter in connection with the crash of an Air France supersonic Concorde jet, Flight 4590 from Paris to New York, in 2000. Prosecutors contended that, despite known issues with the Concorde’s fuel tank, Continental was responsible because debris from one of its aircraft punctured the Concorde’s tire. Though the appeals court upheld a $1.3 civil damages award that Continental must pay Air France for “damage to its image,” the court’s reversal of the criminal convictions is a win for both justice and common sense.
Flight 4590 was a French aircraft, operated by a French airline, which crashed on takeoff from a French airport, yet the lower court’s ruling had found that only American companies and individuals were responsible for the tragedy. Nothing about that decision seemed reasonable to anyone outside France. The appellate reversal restores a degree of faith among foreigners that France’s courts will treat them fairly should the occasion ever arise.
It's still not an entirely fair result, however. United, as Continental’s successor, will pay Air France more or less to make the case go away. After all, debris occurs on runways fairly regularly. A well-designed aircraft ought not to have its tires disintegrate or its fuel tanks explode as a result of running afoul of it. United knows this, but accepting the judgment will mean closing the case.
Air France would be hard-pressed to show any specific damages to its reputation over the incident anyway, especially since the Concorde crash came only 16 months after a prior Air France accident (though that one, involving a freighter, did not result in fatalities). The airline has a lengthy history of mishaps and worse.
But Air France, ironically, is probably even more relieved than United that the original ruling was at least partly overturned, since the French airline is now the subject of a potentially much more serious investigation into the responsibility for the crash of a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. As William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, told The New York Times, “The aviation safety community is going to view this verdict with great deal of relief.” He added that the verdict is a reminder that, no matter the outcome, there is still a difference between crime and human error. Air France is likely to be more grateful for the distinction now than it was when Continental was in the hot seat a few years ago.
The French appellate decision is a step back from misguidedly “patriotic” justice, as well as after-the-fact criminalization of simple human error. That's a step forward for true justice.