According to a listing on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website, a private pilot in Wisconsin has been charged with negligent homicide under Wis. Stat. 940.10(1) for the death of a passenger when the pilot’s aircraft crashed after striking power lines. The NTSB factual report states that on August 28, 2004, the pilot was giving rides in a Boeing A75 when the aircraft struck power lines over the Wisconsin River near Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and subsequently impacted the water. The aircraft sustained substantial damage. Although the pilot received minor injuries, unfortunately his passenger died in the accident.
After completing its investigation, on July 7, 2005 the NTSB issued its probable cause findingwhich determined that the accident was caused by the pilot’s improper in-flight decision when he decided to fly at a low altitude over the river and his failure to maintain clearance from the power lines. Subsequently, on January 29, 2007 criminal charges were filed against the pilot in Wood County, Wisconsin.
This case highlights an airman’s potential criminal liability arising out of the operation of an aircraft. Although criminal prosecution in the aftermath of an aircraft accident has always been available to the government, the decision to prosecute has been problematic in all but the clearest of cases because it is oftentimes difficult to distinquish between cases of negligence and mere accidents. In this case, I think the airman’s admission that he was flying only 40-50 feet above the water coupled with the death of his passenger strongly influenced the prosecutor’s determination that this was a case of negligence rather than merely an accident.
An additional issue that arises in this circumstance is the conflicting rights and responsibilities of an airman in an NTSB investigation versus a criminal investigation. By complying with his or her obligations in an NTSB investigation, the airman may end up providing incriminating evidence that could be used against him or her in a subsequent criminal prosecution. Not a good situation. If you find yourself in this situation, you should retain an aviation attorney who is also familiar with criminal proceedings to assist you in complying with your obligations while still protecting your rights.