Magazine article Insight on the News

Legal System and ADA Fail Sobriety Test

Magazine article Insight on the News

Legal System and ADA Fail Sobriety Test

Article excerpt

Nearly six miles over the ocean's icy waves, I'm still amazed that a pressurized steel tube can whisk me safely from Newark, N.J., to Narita, Japan. Reading Walter Olson's The Excuse Factory on a 747 makes me fear, however, that my plane suddenly will become a boat, then dive like a submarine.

Olson tells the story of Northwest Airlines pilot Norman Prouse, who flew from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis on March 8,1990, with 91 passengers aboard. Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, officials in Minneapolis discovered Prouse had flown a 727 through sleet and rain after a long night of drinking. He had guzzled between 15 and 19 rum and Diet Cokes at Fargo's Speak Easy Lounge, then tumbled off his chair, cutting his forehead. His two-man crew, Joseph Balzer and Robert Kirchner, left earlier after splitting six pitchers of beer. In most states, it's illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level above .10 percent. The FAA forbids pilots to fly with levels above .04 percent. Prouse tested at. 13 percent, while his crew hit .06 and .08 percent. They were tested three hours after leaving Fargo, so they were even more hammered in the air.

After the pilots were arrested for flying while intoxicated, comedians swung into action. One quipped that a Northwest pilot refused to land until the ground stopped circling. Sassy passengers asked to drink "whatever the captain's having."

Then something really funny happened: After he and his crew did time for their misdeeds, Northwest rehired Prouse. When the Air Line Pilots Association argued that the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, protects alcoholics who undergo rehabilitation, Northwest agreed to return Prouse to the cockpit. He resumed flying international passengers across the Pacific and Atlantic in June 1995.

As Olson -- a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute -- explains in his detailed, chilling and often darkly comic new book, America's eccentric legal system often puts safety last. From airplanes to factories to hospitals, defending those with "disabilities" (including alcoholism), advancing demographic diversity and limiting corporate liability all have placed the public in harm's way.

Prouse's experience is not unique. …

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