French Alps crash leads to questions about mental health in the workplace

Photo: A French rescue worker inspects the remains of the Germanwings Airbus A320 at the site of the crash in the French Alps.  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

On March 24, 2015, a young co-pilot for Lufthansa’s low cost-airline Germanwings intentionally crashed a passenger jet into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 others. It was quickly discovered that the co-pilot suffered from depression and had researched suicide. The information now available suggest that the co-pilot on the flight had hidden sick notes that said he was not fit to fly, locked his fellow pilot out of the cockpit, and deliberately crashed the plane into the mountainside.

The family of victims of this crash are entitled to receive compensation from the airline pursuant to The Montreal Convention, 1999. The Montreal Convention, which is part of Canadian federal law by virtue of the Carriage by Air Act, restricts the types and the amount of claims for damages that may be made against international air carriers. It permits claims for death or bodily injury, destruction, damage or loss of baggage and cargo and for delay. Lufthansa automatically is liable to pay about $150,000 per passenger to the families of the victims. However, the amount can vary by nationality.

This terrible act leads to questions about mental health in the workplace and the duties of an employer in dealing with employees with mental health problems. Germany announced the creation of an expert task force to examine what went wrong in the Germanwings crash and consider whether changes are needed regarding – among other things – how companies recognize psychological problems in employees. Any conclusions will be shared with international air safety organizations.

It is uncertain whether this incident will be beneficial for the issue of mental health in the workplace. On the one hand, it puts focus on mental health in the workplace but can also lead to a vicious cycle of stigmatization and dysfunctional finger-pointing. Employers must respect health privacy and discrimination laws in addressing their potential workplace or public safety concerns. In Pennsylvania, an employer was recently considered liable for terminating an employee who advised his employer of his homicidal tendencies. Jennifer Newman, a workplace psychologist, said workers can fight stigma around depression and other mental illness in the workplace.

The Executive Director of the (American) National Alliance on Mental Illness has stated that senseless tragedies must not be allowed to resurrect or perpetuate stigmatizing stereotypes that associate anyone with a history of mental illness with a propensity for violence. It will be an additional tragedy if the crash of Flight 9525 leads to “witch hunts” in which people who have sought help for mental illness become unfairly discriminated against.


This blog post was contributed by Roelf Swart, OTLA Blog Committee member and lawyer practicing with Elkin Injury Law in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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Roelf A.M. Swart is very pleased to have joined Elkin Injury Law as an associate lawyer in 2009. Roelf’s practice consists plaintiff personal injury law with a focus on tort, accident benefits and long term disability disputes. Roelf enjoys successfully assisting people with their cases and bringing their cases to a successful resolution.