Understanding NTSB investigations after accidents

This week’s news that the NTSB issued preliminary findings in a recent major train derailment in Connecticut demonstrates that the NTSB investigates more than just airplane accidents. http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_23393187/track-inspection-found-problems-before-conn-crash

Although the NTSB is best known for their work in aviation accidents, they also have responsibility for investigating railroad accidents and ceratin highway and maritime incidents.

Our office has had a lot of experience with the NTSB over the years as we have handled a variety of aviation cases. From that involvement, we are fairly familiar with the manner in which the NTSB goes about its business. Here is how it works.

The agency has a variety of “go teams” stationed around the country. These teams are made up of a handful of investigators who stand ready at a moment’s notice to fly or drive to the scene of an accident. Once there, they immediately begin to survey and mark the scene. The team leader organizes activities, the main objective being to gather physical evidence (wreckage, airplane or train components, the so-called “black box,” etc.) and also to identify any witnesses. It is not unusual for the “go team” to be on the ground for two to three days at the scene.

The next phase of an investigation often involves the re-assembly of wreckage and/or laboratory inspection of it. In many aviation accidents, the NTSB will collect all of the damaged parts of the aircraft and then actually try to put it back together in a large airplane hangar, almost like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. They do this so they can see all of the pieces of wreckage in their natural location because once assembled, this often gives investigators important clues. That is exactly what happened in the famous U.S. Air Flight 427 crash outside of Pittsburgh in the mid-1990’s, a case in which our office served as one of the lead counsel.

In addition to piecing the aircraft back together, other more specialized investigators (engineers, metallurgists, etc.) will literally put certain key components under the microscope to look for clues as to how, when and why a component on a plane or train may have failed. In addition to their field and laboratory work, the NTSB may have other subgroups of investigators concentrating on weather conditions, pilot operations, or maintenance if those are important factors in the accident. We have been involved in cases that have had as many as four or five “working groups” of investigators, each one looking at a particular aspect of a crash or accident.

Once all of the working groups have finished their tasks, the lead investigator prepares a detailed Factual Report. As it’s name suggests, this document summarizes all of the important facts gathered during the investigation, and it is usually quite lengthy. The NTSB’s work concludes with their publication of a Probable Cause Determination, the agency’s final explanation for how and why the accident occurred.

The length of time it takes to complete an NTSB investigation can vary widely depending on the complexity of the accident. In some of our cases involving small private aircraft, the investigation has been completed in just a few months, but in a case like the U.S. Air Flight 427 disaster that our office was involved with, the investigation can take more than two years from start to finish.

For people involved in private lawsuits arising out of aviation or train accidents, here is a very important thing to know: The conclusion reached by the NTSB as to who was at fault for the accident is not admissible in court. Therefore, private parties in the lawsuit have to hire their own expert witnesses to explain how and why the accident happened. We have done that in all of our aviation cases through the years, and sometimes our private experts come to a different conclusion than the one reached by the NTSB, whereas other times they are in full agreement.