Brazil's Black Eye: Criminalizing Pilots
In this week's verdict on the collision between a GOL 737 and an Embraer Legacy, the Brazilian government proved that its justice system couldn't untangle itself from its internal politics after all. As we reported this week, the court convicted Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino of negligence, claiming the two turned off or failed to notice a failure in their transponder that led to the collision. The court also found the military controllers who put the two airplanes together to be culpable.
The two American pilots were tried and testified in absentia through a remote connection to a courtroom in the U.S. For as mistaken as proceeding with a criminal trial in the first place was, the verdict itself was an even bigger joke. The judge sentenced the pilots to four years, then suspended that in lieu of an equal amount of public service work. There's no extradition possibility here and I doubt if the court has any standing to enforce the sentence.
As this case progressed, I really thought the Brazilians would come to their senses, realize that criminalizing this accident serves no one and would just quietly make it go away. For reasons known only to people who understand Brazilian politics and culture, they didn't do that. In all this time—five years—they couldn't untangle this mess and work in their own (global) interest.
It makes me wonder what airlines and pilots who fly into Brazil must think. They have unique criminal liability for what most countries in the developed would consider an accident. I also wonder what they think in the halls of Embraer. They can't possibly like this verdict, can they? I wonder if we will hear them speak out about it. They should step up to the plate.
In the U.S., we routinely get excoriated for our money grubbing civil tort climate, perhaps deservedly. But I'll take that system any day over one biased to treat pilots as criminals in accidents for which they were at fault. Even in the U.S., criminal actions can result in cases of willful negligence. But what sane person turns off a transponder to willfully cause an accident?
The answer to that fundamentally erodes this verdict, one that Brazil should never have let seen the light of day.