The Reno Air Races crash: Who is legally accountable?

Maxwell S. Kennerly, an attorney with Beasley Firm, LLC, a law firm that not only litigates aviation accidents but whose founder flew several World War II vintage planes (including P-51s), has written a very comprehensive and informative post that takes a look at the legal liability aspects of the recent tragedy at the National Championship Air Races in Reno.

To first put things in perspective: Air shows are a big business in the US. In fact, Maxwell pointed out that approximately 17 million people will visit the 400 or so US air shows every year – roughly the same attendance as the NFL receives.

Meanwhile, initial reports about the accident have focused on the trim tab of the Galloping Ghost as photos and videos of the accident unfolding appear to show that the aircraft was missing one of its left side trim tabs entirely. Moreover, the AP has reported that Galloping Ghost bore “little resemblance to its original self” as it was completely rebuilt for speed and had a full 10 feet taken off its wingspan in order to make the aircraft fly faster.

So where does liability fall? Maxwell writes that he will:

…often say that fatal maritime and aviation accidents rarely happen as the result of a single, unlikely event. Usually, they’re caused by a cascade of failure.

Maxwell then wrote extensively about three critical areas where liability or fault could eventually be found for the crash at the Reno Air Races:

  1. Pilot Error. Jimmy Leeward was 74 years old and naturally there has been some chatter that age was a contributing factor in the accident. However, Leeward did have a valid third class medical certification certification dating from March 2010. Nevertheless, there is always the chance that some kind of pilot error did contribute to the accident but in all likelihood, Leeward was unconscious during the final moments of the flight and when the aircraft hit the ground.  
  2. Defective Parts, Design Issues or Inadequate Maintenance. A broken trim tab was apparently a factor in the crash but Maxwell wrote that he would be surprised if someone of Leeward’s stature did not have his aircraft frequently inspected. However, he also added that upon an investigation, you “often never know what you find.” Moreover, there is also the possibility that Galloping Ghost had been modified to the point that a broken trim was inevitable – meaning the owner(s), designer(s) and builder(s) are to blame for what occurred.
  3. Flight Planning. Finally, Maxwell pointed out that the National Championship Air Races have already had their share of accidents and it was probably only a matter of time before an aircraft ended up hitting a spectator stand. Hence, the city of Reno, the organizers of the Reno Air Races and the owners of the airport could all be blamed for allowing Galloping Ghost to fly a route that was so close to spectators when there had already been accidents or near misses in the past. 

At the end of his post, Maxwell concluded that whatever the NTSB and legal outcome of the investigation is:

…this crash may spell the end of the National Championship Air Races, at least in their current form. Maybe that’s for the best; if they’re not run in a safe manner, they shouldn’t be run at all. Or maybe the solution is something as simple as ensuring planes conform to save designs, mandating the use of proper harnesses, and moving the race a little bit further from the crowd.

Hence and although its to early to draw any definite conclusions, we want to ask you our readers what you think. In other words, where might the legal liability fall regarding the Reno Air Races tragedy? Moreover, what, if anything short of banning air races, can be done to advert another such tragedy? 

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