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Part I: Horror in the Sky

By now, everyone is aware of the tragedy that occurred in the French Alps on March 24, 2015. The crash of Germanwings Flight #9525 was originally thought to be caused by some horrific freak accident or mechanical failure, but it is now believed to be the result of the deliberate actions of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz. The evidence from the flight data recorder and the so-called "black box" that has been recovered (one has still not been located) reveals that Lubitz locked the pilot out of the cockpit and then set the aircraft on its doomed descent into the alps. Perhaps as awful as the crash itself is the now unimaginable conclusion that someone purposefully caused his own death and that of 149 other innocent people. Such a conclusion leads to many questions, notably how someone was able to carry out such an act with so many safety precautions in place.


According to the Dusseldorf prosecutor, when police raided the home of Lubitz, they found a letter in his waste basket indicating he was "unfit to fly" by a medical doctor. Other evidence in the co-pilot's apartment included a doctor's note excusing him from work the day of the crash; the note was torn up. Medical documents seized suggest an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment. A nearby clinic confirmed that Lubitz was a patient and had been treated there recently.

All of this information was unknown to Lubitz's employer, Lufthansa AG, however. Lubitz hid his condition from his employer and colleagues. He was able to do this because due to medical confidentiality rules, the airline only sees whether a person passes physical and mental fitness tests. The employer does not have the actual physical and mental health records of its employees; those are maintained with the doctors who treat the employees. Lubitz is reported to have passed his regular medical check last July, but that focuses on medical conditions. The airline industry relies on self-reporting or reporting by colleagues for information regarding psychological problems in its employees. But the fear of losing your license, being forced to take leave, and of the social stigma that can still surround psychological conditions all contribute to making self-reporting a very unreliable screening tool. Lufthansa AG is said to be already considering whether pilot screening measures need to be changed.


The same self-reporting system is used to determine whether an applicant for a driver's license is fit to drive. Under Georgia driver license requirements, an applicant must be "physically and mentally capable of safely operating a motor vehicle." But the requirement relies on the applicant to truthfully state that he or she is fit to drive, or to state reasons why that may not be the case--another words, compliance with the requirement depends wholly on self-reporting.

Only six states currently have mandatory reporting requirements for doctors who are treating patients who they know are driving and who the doctor deems unfit to drive or who need restrictions on their license: California, Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Some states offer legal immunity to doctors who report patients to the DMV. It should be noted that reporting concerns about physically or cognitively impaired drivers if harm to the patient or public is feared is permitted under the federal law, HIPPA.


Health issues are private matters for many reasons. But there needs to be a balance between individual privacy and public safety. It can be argued that when responsible for operating a motor vehicle or an airplane, the balance should tilt in favor public safety.


If you have been involved in a motor vehicle accident with someone who may not have been fit to drive, contact David Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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