The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducts investigative hearings in conjunction with ongoing investigations and studies to determine the facts, circumstances, and probable cause of a transportation event and to make recommendations to improve transportation safety.
What is an Investigative Hearing?
An investigative hearing allows the NTSB to gather sworn testimony from witnesses on issues identified by the investigative team for a specific transportation event or systemic safety issues. The sworn testimony will become part of the public record of the investigation or study. NTSB is authorized to compel testimony, through use of a subpoena, if necessary.
An in-person or virtual hearing provides an opportunity for the public to observe the progress of the investigation.
There is no set location for an investigative hearing. When needed, the NTSB holds investigative hearings in the field near the location of the transportation event.
Investigative hearings are different from town hall meetings or other public hearings in that only invited witnesses may speak at the hearing.
Investigative Hearing vs. Board Meeting
Unlike a Board Meeting, Board Members do not conduct any deliberations or analysis during an investigative hearing, and the hearing does not result in a report. Rather, the hearing is wholly fact-finding in nature. Like a board meeting, an investigative hearing is normally open for public observation.
Investigative Hearing Process
At the start of every investigation, NTSB determines if an investigative hearing is necessary based on the public interest.
If NTSB decides to hold an investigative hearing, the NTSB designates parties to the proceeding who contribute a variety of perspectives on the issues the NTSB will address at the hearing. A party may be any person or organization with specialized knowledge that would contribute to the development of pertinent evidence.
Before a hearing, the NTSB holds a pre-hearing conference during which each party has an opportunity to provide input on the subject matter of the hearing. This helps the NTSB to set the focus of the discussion and limit the questions and evidence presented specifically to the subject matter of the hearing.
Then the NTSB identifies individuals or representatives of organizations as hearing witnesses. These witnesses possess information that:
- the NTSB has not already discovered,
- needs clarification, or
- should be publicly vetted in an open forum.
During the hearing, only NTSB investigative staff, NTSB Board members, and designated parties to the proceeding may ask questions of witnesses, who testify under oath. The hearing is recorded live, and the public is invited to attend in person or virtually.
After the hearing, the NTSB will use the information gathered to complete the investigation, determine probable cause, and make recommendations to improve transportation safety. A transcript of the hearing testimony is typically prepared and saved to the docket.
Assigning Fault or Blame
The NTSB does not assign fault or blame for an accident or incident; rather, NTSB investigations are factfinding proceedings with no adverse parties and are not conducted for the purpose of determining the rights, liabilities, or blame of any person or entity.
As a result, the NTSB does not permit questions related to fault, outside litigation, or legal liability in general. Questions related to legal liability or fault are not relevant to the fact-finding purposes of an NTSB investigative hearing or to the NTSB’s statutory mission to improve transportation safety by investigating accidents and incidents and issuing safety recommendations.