Major transportation accidents such as plane crashes and train wrecks usually draw a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the cause and ways to prevent future accidents.
Last weekend’s train derailment in New York City, which killed four people and injured 67 others, is currently under such scrutiny. As is typical, the investigation is highly charged, garnering intense media attention and featuring a full range of people with a vested interest in the outcome, from the railway company to the families of victims and the union representing the train’s operator. Politicians are jumping into the fray, grandstanding for TV cameras with their demands for accountability, and no doubt plaintiff attorneys are circling like vultures.
The NTSB’s job is to conduct a thorough, fair and objective review of accidents, determine a probable cause and then make recommendations for enhancements that advance the cause of safety in the public interest. Its method is deliberate, and the rules governing participation in the investigation are specific. Any party to the investigation that violates NTSB rules can be removed, eliminating its ability to have a say in the final report. No small penalty, indeed.
The NTSB removed the Association of Commuter Rail Employees (ACRE) as a party to the New York investigation for making comments to media that revealed confidential information from the investigation – a major violation of NTSB rules. Now, the ACRE must sit on the sidelines and watch helplessly as the investigation proceeds without its input or involvement.
What happened to ACRE is completely avoidable, but only if you are familiar with the NTSB’s rules. Here are some good rules of thumb to follow if you are ever a party to an NTSB investigation:
- Don’t speculate publicly to the possible cause of an accident.
- Share any information regarding the accident with the NTSB investigator in charge through appropriate channels and never release it to anyone outside the investigation.
- Clear any information you intend to make public with the NTSB public affairs office before releasing it.
- Do not publicly discuss any aspect of the ongoing investigation, even with employees or investors.
If you are in an industry that could have exposure to an NTSB investigation, learning about the NTSB process via its website or by taking one of its excellent courses at the NTSB training center in Virginia is a good use of time. And if you ever get involved in an investigation, retain legal and public relations counsel familiar with the NTSB to ensure you are following all the rules necessary to remain a party to the investigation and thereby make sure your interests are represented.