Less Patriotism, Greater Justice In France

Patriotism and justice are both admirable, but they don’t always co-exist very well. It’s heartening when justice wins out.

I have written before about the difference between crime and human error. Errors, even those that result in tragedy, are going to happen any time humans are involved, despite our best efforts. But it is also very human to want a scapegoat when something goes catastrophically wrong, all the more so when the government takes a less-than-impartial interest in where the blame ultimately rests.

That is why I am glad to see that a French appeals court realized that error is not a crime.

The appeals court overturned a 2010 ruling in which Continental Airlines (since merged with United) and a Continental mechanic, John Taylor, were found guilty of manslaughter in connection with the crash of an Air France supersonic Concorde jet, Flight 4590 from Paris to New York, in 2000. Prosecutors contended that, despite known issues with the Concorde’s fuel tank, Continental was responsible because debris from one of its aircraft punctured the Concorde’s tire. Though the appeals court upheld a $1.3 civil damages award that Continental must pay Air France for “damage to its image,” the court’s reversal of the criminal convictions is a win for both justice and common sense.

Flight 4590 was a French aircraft, operated by a French airline, which crashed on takeoff from a French airport, yet the lower court’s ruling had found that only American companies and individuals were responsible for the tragedy. Nothing about that decision seemed reasonable to anyone outside France. The appellate reversal restores a degree of faith among foreigners that France’s courts will treat them fairly should the occasion ever arise.

It’s still not an entirely fair result, however. United, as Continental’s successor, will pay Air France more or less to make the case go away. After all, debris occurs on runways fairly regularly. A well-designed aircraft ought not to have its tires disintegrate or its fuel tanks explode as a result of running afoul of it. United knows this, but accepting the judgment will mean closing the case.

Air France would be hard-pressed to show any specific damages to its reputation over the incident anyway, especially since the Concorde crash came only 16 months after a prior Air France accident (though that one, involving a freighter, did not result in fatalities). The airline has a lengthy history of mishaps and worse.

But Air France, ironically, is probably even more relieved than United that the original ruling was at least partly overturned, since the French airline is now the subject of a potentially much more serious investigation into the responsibility for the crash of a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. As William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, told The New York Times, “The aviation safety community is going to view this verdict with great deal of relief.” He added that the verdict is a reminder that, no matter the outcome, there is still a difference between crime and human error. Air France is likely to be more grateful for the distinction now than it was when Continental was in the hot seat a few years ago.

The French appellate decision is a step back from misguidedly “patriotic” justice, as well as after-the-fact criminalization of simple human error. That’s a step forward for true justice.

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About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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