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A brief look at NTSB aircraft accident investigations, their relationship to accident litigation

Previously, we noted that those who suffer loss in small aircraft accidents should pay close attention to the investigative work that occurs after the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is one of the primary agencies responsible for investigating aircraft accidents. When the NTSB investigates an accident, it looks to determine the probable cause(s) and to make safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future.

Once the NTSB is notified of an aviation accident, the agency makes an initial assessment of the accident and determines which type of investigation is appropriate. There are four general types of investigation that the agency conducts. In cases involving non-injury general aviation accidents in which there are no apparent airworthiness issues, the operator self-reports the circumstances of the accident. If there are no fatalities, the NTSB may conduct a limited investigation, which involves delegating the investigation to the Federal Aviation Administration and performs an analysis on its findings. 

Accidents involving a small number of fatalities call for a regional investigation, while those involving multiple fatalities or national public interest involve a major investigation by a team of investigators from Washington. Experts in various disciplines are brought into these investigations, while data specialists analyze flight data recorders, cockpit voice recorders, aircraft components and other information regarding the crash. The procedures used in accident investigations are carefully coordinated and can take some time to carry out, particularly when a party files a petition for reconsideration.

A petition for reconsideration may be filed when a party has evidence that the NTSB’s investigative report included erroneous information or left out information that has since become available. Those who have been harmed as a result of an aircraft accident should be aware of this possibility and seek appropriate guidance and representation when pursuing this option.

One important point to note in this discussion is that the NTSB does not determine liability when it conducts aircraft accident investigations. In addition, the NTSB’s findings regarding the causes of aircraft accidents cannot be used as evidence in a court of law. We’ll say more about this in our next post. 

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