Saturday, January 7, 2012

OSU Deja Vu: Legal Lessons from the OSU Basketball Tragedies

The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has released its Preliminary Report regarding the November 18, 2011 airplane crash that killed Oklahoma State University (“OSU”) Women’s Basketball coach Kurt Budke and his assistant coach, Miranda Serna. The Piper Cherokee 180 was owned and flown by former Oklahoma State Senator Olin Branstetter who, along with his wife, was also killed in the crash. News reports indicate that the four were flying from OSU to Little Rock, Arkansas for a recruiting trip.

Unbelievably, this was the second tragic plane crash to afflict OSU within a decade. In 2001, an airplane chartered for the OSU Men’s Basketball team crashed in Colorado, killing ten, including two players. The NTSB determined that the 2001 crash was caused by a loss of a.c. electrical power that was not adequately managed by the pilot. Spurred by the loss to its athletic community, OSU revised its team travel policy, and the NTSB held up OSU’s revised post-accident team travel policy as a model for other sports organizations. This policy is largely articulated in a January 21, 2003 letter from the NTSB to Dr. Myles Brand, former NCAA President. It is not known whether OSU’s current travel policy was applicable to the flight that killed coaches Budke and Serna.

The NTSB’s Preliminary Report on the most recent crash, as is typical for preliminary reports, simply addresses “who, what, when, and where.” Over the next several months, the NTSB, along with any manufacturers or others it designates as a party, will conduct a comprehensive investigation into the “how.” Oftentimes this investigation involves, among other things, wreckage and component part inspections and testing, analysis of aircraft logbooks and maintenance records, analysis of the pilot’s experience and qualifications, and analysis of radar and other data pertaining to the accident flight. The investigation will culminate in the NTSB’s probable cause finding, which is the NTSB’s determination as to the probable cause or causes of and contributing factors to the accident.

The NTSB investigates accidents and issues probable cause findings to promote safe transportation, not to help litigants win lawsuits; thus, there are federal regulations that govern the admissibility of NTSB findings and the type and amount of discovery a litigant can conduct with respect to the NTSB. These rules often vex courts presiding over air crash litigation. It is evident, even at this early stage, that many other issues that commonly arise in air crash litigation could be implicated in any lawsuit regarding the recent OSU crash. For example, the question of forum often takes center stage early on in airplane crash lawsuits. In this case, the individuals killed were from Oklahoma, but the plane crashed during a recruiting trip to Arkansas, so a court may have to sort out the appropriate and most convenient forum, and determine which state’s law to apply. The possibly varied residences of any defendants could further complicate this issue. Another possible legal issue is the applicability of the General Aviation Revitalization Act’s 18-year statute of repose which protects manufacturers. Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") records reveal that the Piper was manufactured in 1964, so product liability lawsuits may be barred, though this is a highly fact-intensive issue that also implicates volumes of precedent. Also, few airplane crash claims are resolved without accompanying insurance coverage disputes, and the factual circumstances surrounding the recent OSU crash lend themselves to possible complex coverage issues.

Regardless of the cause of the recent OSU accident, it underscores the importance of air travel to collegiate sports teams. Colleges and universities are often located in areas not well-served by commercial aviation, so staff and athletes may rely on private aircraft transportation on recruiting trips or away games. Whether a college or university uses its own flight department, a private charter operator, or donated airplanes and crew can have far-reaching and difficult to foresee consequences in the wake of a crash. Shortly before this tragic crash, in light of the KHL hockey team crash, I published an article in Sports Litigation Alert with fellow partners from the Aerospace Group at my firm discussing airplane crashes and sports teams; we discussed prior accidents, common issues in aviation lawsuits, and the importance of safe airplane travel policies. This unfortunate accident should serve as a stark reminder to sports organizations to ensure that their travel policies are current with respect to aviation safety developments, and that their policies are rigorously adhered to. Sports organizations should also watch closely for the NTSB’s findings and any safety recommendations it may make, and review their policies accordingly.

Hat tip to my partner, Michael McGrory, for his work on this piece.