Paris judge acquits Airbus, Air France of involuntary manslaughter in 2009 crash that killed 228

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Friday, April 21, 2023

Frigate Constituição unloading wreckage from AF447 in Recife, Brazil on June 14, 2009.
Image: Roberto Maltchik for Agência Brasil.

Monday, a judge in Paris, France found Air France and Airbus not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 (AF447), which killed all 228 onboard, concluding the first corporate manslaughter trial in French history.

Judge Sylvie Daunis said Airbus had been negligent four times and Air France once, but: "A probable causal link isn't sufficient to characterize an offense." ((fr))French language: ‍Un lien de causalité probable n'est pas suffisant pour caractériser un délit. She reaffirmed the corporations' civil liability, under which Air France had paid reparations to families, setting a hearing on further civil damages for September 4.

Airbus and Air France could have been fined up to 225,000 each if convicted. Air France-KLM reported €7.1 billion of revenue in the fourth quarter of 2022, while Airbus said its revenue was €20.64 billion in the same period.

Reuters quoted sources as reporting the parties had also settled to transfer undisclosed amounts.

The approximate flight path of AF447
Image: Jolly Janner (derivative).

Claire Durousseau's niece was one of the 216 passengers of 33 nations aboard AF447, the deadliest French aviation accident ever. After the verdict she said, "Our lost ones have died a second time. I feel sick."

The president of victims' families' association Entraide et Solidarité AF447, Danièle Lamy, told media, after "chaotic" legal disputes for over ten years, including this nine-week trial last year, the families were "mortified and overwhelmed."

"The loser first and foremost is French justice," she said.

An attorney for the families, Alain Jakubowicz, commented: "We're told Air France, Airbus are responsible, but not guilty. We were waiting for the word 'guilty'."

The defendants independently expressed compassion to the families and affirmed support for safety.

The memorial to the victims at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, 2017.
Image: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin.

The plaintiffs were victims' family members, as the prosecution argued for acquittal between the trial and the verdict, citing insufficient evidence to place liability with the corporations instead of the pilots.

Air France declared the causes of the accident will remain unknown.

Daunis found Airbus negligent on Monday for not replacing the model of pitot tubes, airspeed sensors on the outside of a plane, responsible for previous incidents and not correlating incident reports from airlines to identify an issue with the pitots. The judge said the Airbus' cockpit display did not inform pilots of issues to the same extent it did air traffic controllers. Investigators relied on the encoded alerts to probe the causes of the accident before the main wreckage was discovered in 2011.

Daunis also found Monday Air France acted negligently by not reminding pilots of prior issues with the pitots.

AF447, flying from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean on May 31, 2009 local time (UTC−03:00). On April 3, 2011, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution-operated robotic submarines found the main wreckage from the A330-200 about 4,000 meters (13,123.4 ft) down; the BEA retrieved the aircraft's cockpit voice recorders with a similar craft in May.

Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) investigators concluded ice accumulated on the pitots, disabling autopilot and autothrottle. They said the aircraft stalled and produced warnings, which the pilots disregarded; Airbus agreed with this explanation.

Air France, the National Airline Pilots Union and Entraide et Solidarité AF447 criticized the BEA for allegedly concentrating its investigation on the airline instead of probing Airbus as well.

According to Euronews, the AF447 crash prompted new regulations on sensor testing and training for pilots.