Continental Appeal Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction

In 2010, Continental Airlines was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the Air France Flight 4590 disaster in Paris a decade earlier.

Continental called the judgement “absurd” and vowed to appeal. That appeal has now started in Versaille this month. The crash, in July 2000, is described as “the beginning of the end” of Concorde’s commercial flights. Concorde was retired by both Air France and British Airways in 2003.

Air France Flight 4590 departed Paris at 16:42:17 local time. Witnesses saw the plane take off with flames coming out of the engine. At 16:44:30, the burning plane stalled and crashed into the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel in Gonnese. All 100 passengers and nine crew were killed as well as four people in the hotel.

The French BEA (accident investigation bureau) determined that there was a strip of metal on the runway which punctured the Concorde’s tyre.

The tyre exploded and large pieces of flying debris struck the craft. The vibrations caused a fuel valve on the wing to burst open. The resulting fuel leak was likely to have ignited from the sparks from the landing gear wiring which had been severed when the tyre exploded. The crew began aircraft rotation (take-off) as the fire ignited. The flight engineer shut down engine two in response to the fire alarm.

The undercarriage (with severed/burning electrical wiring) would not retract. The report found that the resulting configuration meant that the remaining three engines did not have sufficient power to climb. The crew attempted to divert to Le Bourget; however engine one failed and the port wing began to melt, causing further destabilisation. Finally, engines three and four failed and the crew lost control as the plane stalled into the ground.

The strip of metal, a titanium alloy strip measuring just 435x29x34mm (approx 17x1x1.3 inches), had come from a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had departed for New Jersey five minutes before the Concorde.

The accident report concludes with the following:

The accident was due to the following causes:

  • High-speed passage of a tyre over a part lost by an aircraft that had taken off five minutes earlier and the destruction of the tyre.
  • The ripping out of a large piece of tank in a complex process of transmission of the energy produced by the impact of a piece of tyre at another point on the tank, this transmission associating deformation of the tank skin and the movement of the fuel, with perhaps the contributory effect of other more minor shocks and /or a hydrodynamic pressure surge.
  • Ignition of the leaking fuel by an electric arc in the landing gear bay or through contact with the hot parts of the engine with forward propagation of the flame causing a very large fire under the aircraft’s wing and severe loss of thrust on engine 2 then engine 1.

The BEA found that the titanium strip had not been manufactured nor installed in accordance with manufacturer procedures. Titanium was not a suitable material to use for the repair.

French authorities began a criminal investiagion of Continental Airlines. On the 6th of December in 2010, Continental Airlines was found criminally responsible for the disaster and Continental mechanic John Taylor was given a 15-month suspended sentence for negligence. Continental was fined 200,000 Euros and ordered to pay one million Euros to Air France.

Continental stated at the time that Concorde was unfit to fly and that the aircraft caught fire before hitting the metal strip.

The appeal is based on the argument that Concorde’s design was flawed and it was structural vulnerabilities which allowed such an incident to happen. Continental’s lawyer stated “Air France, a civil party, could have been among the accused if some experts hadn’t been former Air France employees.”

The Concorde already had a reputation for burst tyres and the US NTSB had expressed concern about this issue as early as 1981. However, the French BEA determined that although a burst tyre “is not an improbable event on Concorde”, neither had it ever caused a fuel fire. The BEA believe that a burst tyre without external cause explodes into smaller parts and thus could not have triggered the effect that lead to the structural failure of the fuel tank.

Continental lawyers are no longer arguing the cause of the accident but have focused on the findings. They appear to be claiming that the metal strip should not have caused such a catastrophe and the design faults of Concorde are to blame.

PPRuNe poster cwatters has pointed out that this appeal may well be dismissed by the take the victim as you find him rule:

Eggshell skull – Wikipedia

This rule holds one liable for all consequences resulting from his or her tortious (usually negligent) activities leading to an injury to another person, even if the victim suffers an unusually high level of damage (e.g. due to a pre-existing vulnerability or medical condition). The term implies that if a person had a skull as delicate as that of the shell of an egg, and a tortfeasor who was unaware of the condition injured that person’s head, causing the skull unexpectedly to break, the defendant would be held liable for all damages resulting from the wrongful contact, even if

  1. such damages were not reasonably foreseeable, or
  2. the tortfeasor did not intend to cause such a severe injury.

The poster points out that there is at least one case where the rule was applied in shipping collisions (PDF) but I’m unsure if there is French precedent.

The trial is expected to continue until the 9th of May although the defence is hoping for a fast dismissal: they have argued that the retrial on the same charges is unconstitutional. The first day of hearings on Thursday was devoted to procedural questions.

Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at Aerospatiale, did not appear at the hearing. His lawyer argued that his 82-year-old client is too frail to attend the proceedings and requested that the case to be dropped.

French court begins hearing Concorde crash case appeal – Monsters and Critics

The court rejected a request Thursday for the case to be scrapped. It came from a lawyer for one of the accused, Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde programme at Aerospatiale, who argued that his client, aged 82, was too frail.

The court decided instead that Perrier and another Aerospatiale employee will face separate court proceedings in January 2013. They are accused of having known about the plane’s engineering flaw and not having done anything to prevent the accident.

Meanwhile, this short documentary about the Concorde still makes me well up:

Special thanks to reader RJ Wade for bringing this to my attention.

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