In the wake of a March 27 midair incident on JetBlue Flight 191, a federal judge has ordered JetBlue Captain Clayton F. Osbon to take a mental competency test to determine if he can stand trial for the charges against him. The mental competency test was agreed to Wednesday after an FBI affidavit described a "likelihood that Osbon may be suffering from a mental disease or defect."
JetBlue Flight 191 was forced to make an emergency landing after Osbon was kicked out of the cockpit by his co-pilot because he was exhibiting strange behavior. Osbon ran wildly throughout the passenger cabin, shouting incoherently about 9/11 and al-Qaida. He then pounded on the cockpit door trying to gain entry and had to be subdued by multiple passengers.
Ronald Goldman, pilot and lead aviation disaster attorney for the national law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman told the Amarillo Globe News on April 5, 2012, that building a plausible case around a defendant’s mental instability during the alleged offense is crucial in these cases. “It’s not just that he willed it, but that he had some cognition that allowed him to appreciate what he was doing,” Goldman said. “Did he have any reasoning power when he did it?” The temporary insanity defense has a “checkered history,” said Goldman, adding that prosecutors in the Osbon case will face some challenges proving that the JetBlue Captain understood his actions during the alleged offense. “That is specific to that time and those actions,” said Goldman about the temporary insanity defense. “He could be perfectly controlled now, but at the moment, the defendant could say he didn’t know right from wrong.”
Mr. Goldman also believes better safeguards should be in place to avoid a similar incident from occurring again. Federal law mandates that airline pilots older than 40 who intend to act as pilots in command on commercial airline flights, like Osbon, undergo physical checkups twice per year. Goldman believes that including evaluations of mental health in addition to physical checkups would go far in improving passenger safety, adding that while diagnosis of psychosis, bipolar disorder, or severe personality disorders may disqualify a pilot from getting his or her medical certificate, there is no real testing to determine mental stability in a pilot.
Pilots are “supposed to notify the FAA when they seek treatment and list every medication (they’re) on,” Goldman said. “But who’s checking to make sure that’s correct? We still have stigmas to it, so people don’t want to disclose they’re under some care for a mental health issue. We have our FAA examination, but should we have a component that does some psychological testing to try to screen out mental instability?”
Ronald Goldman is the head of Baum Hedlund’s aviation disaster team and the firm’s senior trial lawyer. He is a veteran trial lawyer with over 30 years experience handling aviation cases.