ValuJet crash convictions overturned
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A federal appeals court on Wednesday threw out eight of nine convictions and most of an $11-million penalty against a defunct jet repair company that was found criminally responsible for the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida's Everglades.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed SabreTech's conviction and sentence on eight counts of causing the transportation of hazardous materials, saying federal law at the time of the crash did not support the conviction.
That December 1999 conviction in Miami -- the first of an aviation company in a U.S. air disaster -- came after prosecutors argued that SabreTech recklessly supplied the hazardous oxygen generators blamed for the cargo hold fire that caused the May 11, 1996, crash. All 110 people aboard died.
The company was sentenced last year to pay $2-million in fines and $9-million restitution.
But the appellate court said that under the federal law in effect in May 1996, SabreTech could only be convicted if its employees knew the oxygen canisters were dangerous.
U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King had agreed with federal prosecutors, who argued that SabreTech could be found guilty if its employees were reckless in shipping the canisters. That is the law now, but it wasn't changed until months after the crash, the appellate court ruled.
"This was a tragic accident," wrote Judge Joel Dubina for himself and colleagues J.L. Edmondson and Henry Politz. "However, the record is clear that SabreTech and its employees did not intend to kill these people."
The court did uphold the company's conviction of willfully failing to train its employees according to federal hazardous material regulations. Several SabreTech employees testified that they never received such training, even though it was mentioned in a company manual.
The court told King to resentence the company on that single conviction. It faces a maximum fine of $500,000 and no restitution.
"We are very pleased with the decision to dismiss eight counts, but we are disappointed that the court left the last count untouched," SabreTech attorney Martin Raskin said. "(SabreTech) personnel committed mistakes, but they did not commit crimes."
He said the company, a subsidiary of Sabreliner Corp., has been out of business since 1999 and does not have enough money to pay a $500,000 fine. It may appeal the remaining conviction, Raskin said.
Aloyma Sanchez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Federal investigators concluded that SabreTech, ValuJet and the Federal Aviation Administration shared responsibility for the crash. ValuJet now flies under the AirTran name.
State prosecutors and SabreTech agreed last week to a plea bargain that would see murder charges dropped against the company in return for a $500,000 payment from Sabreliner to aviation safety programs. A hearing on the plea bargain is set for Dec. 7.
Insurers have paid at least $262-million to families of the victims of the ValuJet crash, according to court records made public in July 2000.
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