Hyatt v. ValuJet Flight 592

On May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592, flying from Miami International Airport to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, crashed into the Everglades, killing all 110 people on board. The plane was a Douglas DC-9-32 with registration number N904VJ. The flight took place under daylight visual meteorological conditions. Both the pilot and co-pilot possessed airline transport certificates with single and multi-engine land ratings.

The flight had already been delayed for around an hour due to mechanical problems. The DC-9 had 105 passengers and five flight crew members on board. Approximately ten minutes into the flight, passengers started to smell smoke and noticed the loss of the electrical power on the plane. Pilots heard a loud bang and began hearing cries of “fire” from the passengers. The plane turned and requested permission to land back at the Miami airport, but crashed before it could reach it. Witnesses saw the plane roll onto its side and nosedive into the Everglades. Examination of the debris indicated that the fire began in the cargo hold and had burned through the floorboards in the cabin, causing structural failure and damage to cables. The flight crew may have been incapacitated by smoke or heat in the last few seconds of the flight. Witnesses did not see any external damage or smoke as the plane crashed.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable causes of the accident related to a fire which began in the cargo compartment. Oxygen generators were being carried improperly as cargo. Typically, a Class D cargo hold would be airtight, which assures that if a fire starts, it will be extinguished due to lack of air. The employees who loaded the oxygen generators assumed they were empty canisters. However, they actually activate when the plane suffers decompression. When one was jostled during takeoff, it was triggered and began producing oxygen. This process made the generator hotter, until it ignited a fire in the surrounding packages and boxes. The loud bang heard by the pilots was one of the wheels on the landing gear exploding due to the heat. Additionally, the ValuJet did not have adequate maintenance or hazardous materials training and they did not have smoke detectors or fire suppression systems in their cargo holds.

Rescue and recovery for the accident was difficult. The crash site was in the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area of the Everglades, and the nearest road was a quarter of a mile from the crash site. The crash was in deep swamp water where alligators were a risk to rescuers. Ultimately, due to the location of the crash and the violence of the impact, few remains were found.

Ultimately, SabreTech, the company responsible for sending the oxygen generators, was found guilty of mishandling hazardous materials, and was fined $2 million and ordered to pay $9 million in restitution. ValuJet was grounded for a few months and in 1997 was acquired by a different company.

Slack Davis Sanger represented the family of Walter Hyatt, American singer and songwriter, mentor to Lyle Lovett. Hyatt was the founder of Uncle Walt’s Band, and was a pioneer in the live music scene in Austin, Texas. Hyatt moved to Nashville, Tennessee with this family in 1987 and was pursuing a songwriting and solo career at the time of his death. He was flying from an engagement in Florida to attend his daughter’s graduation when he perished. The case settled for a confidential amount.

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