Wolk Law Firm et al. v. National Transportation Safety Board

A recent action in the United States Federal Court makes alarming accusations against the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

In Wolk Law Firm et al. v. National Transportation Safety Board, five families along with the lawyer that represents them, seek an order requiring the NTSB to release documents regarding five air crash investigations currently underway. They claim the NTSB has obstructed justice and violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The independent agency is charged with investigating civil aviation accidents. After a crash it takes custody of aircraft wreckage and neither the victims nor their agents can view the evidence until the NTSB releases the results of its investigation.

The plaintiffs say that the NTSB’s relationships with private businesses affect its investigations due to its reliance on the manufacturers of civil aircraft to provide the technical expertise required for its investigations. The plaintiffs claim this is a conflict of interest because it provides manufacturers early and exclusive access to crash evidence and effectively gives them editing power over the NTSB reports when their own products may have caused the crash.

The plaintiffs say that the NTSB persists in conduct they submit is designed to prevent the plaintiffs from obtaining evidence critical to pursuing their legal rights by allowing manufacturers to control when critical evidence is released to victims. This affects their ability to commence litigation within statutory limitation periods. Even if commenced in time, the plaintiffs say they may still be prejudiced by the delay in the release of such evidence.

On top of these allegations, the plaintiffs claim that NTSB investigators and other employees collude with manufacturers and, when they leave their government jobs, often accept employment representing manufacturers that they were previously tasked to investigate.

The NTSB has since responded to these accusations. It filed a motion in October to dismiss the complaint, arguing, among other things, that the Wolk Law Firm and some of its clients do not have standing to sue the agency. The NTSB contends that it has sovereign immunity over these claims, and the constitution does not protect their requests for information. Moreover, the plaintiffs who were dissatisfied with the NTSB’s response to their FOIA claims had access to other administrative remedies.

Although this action concerns a U.S. agency, anyone with an interest in how Canada investigates its own aircraft accidents will follow it with great interest. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) is charged with investigating aircraft and other transportation accidents. It also works with external parties during its investigations and sends its draft reports to interested parties prior to release. Although the TSB aims to be independent of government and employs its own investigators, some question its autonomy. They worry that the TSB is too close to government and relies too much on the expertise of others, including manufacturers, when investigating issues that relate to their activities and interests.

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