The Untold Story of Roberto Clemente’s Plane Crash Litigation

The Fatal Crash

Roberto Clemente was both a remarkable ballplayer and genuine folk hero. As an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente was a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove recipient. He won four batting titles, was the National League’s MVP in 1966 and the World Series MVP in 1971.

Roberto Clemente

On September 30, 1972, Clemente stroked a double off of Mets pitcher Jon Matlack to reach the 3000 hit milestone in his final regular season at bat. After closing out the 1972 season with a playoff series loss to the Cincinnati Reds, Clemente traveled to Nicaragua in November to manage the Puerto Rican All-Stars in the Amateur Baseball World Series.

A 6.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Managua, Nicaragua on December 23, 1972. Some 5,000 people lost their lives, another 20,000 were injured and over 250,000 were displaced from their homes. Swayed by the time he had just spent in Nicaragua, Clemente coordinated a extraordinary effort to provide emergency supplies to the victims. Even after sending three airplane loads to Managua, there were still supplies that needed to be flown to Nicaragua.

Clemente was approached by Arthur Rivera, who offered the services of his DC-7 cargo plane to airlift the remaining relief supplies. Clemente inspected the plane and agreed to pay Rivera $4000 (approximately $22,000 today) upon his return to Puerto Rico.

By law, Rivera was to provide a pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer. Rivera hired a pilot, Jerry Hill, and appointed himself as the co-pilot, despite his lack of certification to co-pilot the DC-7. He was unable to hire a flight engineer for the flight.

Unbeknownst to Clemente, the DC-7 had been involved in an accident on December 2, 1972 when a loss of hydraulic power caused the aircraft to leave the taxiway and crash into a water-filled concrete ditch. After the incident, an airworthiness inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.) questioned Rivera about intended repairs to the plane. Mr. Rivera confirmed that he intended to repair the plane and the inspector took no further action.

Thereafter, the damaged propellers were replaced and the engines were run for three hours, showing no signs of malfunction. The airplane was returned to service by the repairmen; however, no inspection was conducted by the F.A.A. prior to the ill-fated flight. In fact, the plane had not even been flown since its arrival from Miami in September, 1972.

The loading of Rivera’s DC-7 was completed on December 31, 1972. Clemente decided to personally accompany this flight after having been advised that their prior shipments may not have reached the intended recipients due to governmental interference with the relief efforts.

The flight plan was filed with the F.A.A. on the morning of December 31st. At approximately 9:11 p.m., the flight taxied down Runway 7 and was cleared for takeoff at 9:20 p.m. The weather was good and visibility was at 10 miles.

Upon takeoff, the plane gained very little altitude and at 9:23 p.m. the tower received a message that the plane was turning back around. Unfortunately, the aircraft did not make it, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean about one and a half miles from shore. Everyone aboard the plane, including Roberto Clemente, perished in the crash. He was just 38 years old.

The post-occurrence investigation revealed that there was an engine failure before the crash and that the plane was nearly 4200 pounds over the maximum allowable gross takeoff weight.

Resulting Lawsuit

Vera Zabala Clemente and the next of kin of the other passengers filed a lawsuit against the United States of America alleging that the F.A.A. employees were negligent under the Federal Tort Claims Act and responsible for the resulting crash. (The Federal Tort Claims Act is a limited waiver of sovereign immunity that authorizes parties to sue the United States for tortious conduct.)

Factually, the plaintiffs’ claim was based on the premise that the F.A.A. owed a duty to promote flight safety which was breached by their failure to revoke the airworthiness certificate of the DC-7 after the December 2, 1972 accident; monitor the repair process; and, otherwise discover that the plane was not airworthy, had an improper registration number, was not properly weighted and balanced and did not have a qualified crew. It was the plaintiff’s contention that had the F.A.A. acted in accordance with their own internal procedures (Order SO8430.20C, “Continuous Surveillance of Large and Turbined Powered Aircraft”), the aircraft would have been denied flight clearance, the deceased passengers would have been advised of the deficiencies and that the plane crash would never have happened.

The United States countered that the F.A.A. did not have any legal duty towards the decedents to “discover or anticipate acts which might result in a violation of Federal Regulations.” They also claimed that there was no connection between any duty and the fatal crash.

Who won?

The trial court found for Vera Zabala Clemente and the next of kin of the other deceased passengers on the issue of negligence.


The trial court was convinced by the F.A.A. investigative report that the cause of the crash was “overboosting” of the No. 2 engine at takeoff and the fact that the plane was overloaded by more than two tons. Because the flight crew was inadequate, the situation was such that “…for all practical purposes the Captain was flying solo in emergency conditions.”

Section 6 of Order SO8430.20C called for “continuous surveillance of large and turbine powered aircraft to determine noncompliance of Federal Aviation Regulations.” Furthermore, a “ramp inspection” was required to determine that the crew and operator were in compliance with the safety requirements regarding the airworthiness of the aircraft as to the weight, balance and pilot qualifications. Any indication of an “illegal” flight crew was to be made known to the crew and persons chartering the service. Finally, discovery of such noncompliance was to be given the highest priority, second only to accident investigation.

The trial court found that these provisions of the Continuous Surveillance of Large and Turbined Powered Aircraft order were applicable to Roberto Clemente’s chartered flight and that the decedents were within the class of people sought to be protected under the order. If the required ramp inspection had been completed, the lack of a proper crew and overloading would have been discovered, Clemente would have been notified and, presumably, he would not have agreed to board the plane and avoided his untimely death.

The order was held to be mandatory in nature and because the F.A.A. violated its own orders, a failure to exercise due care was evident. Accordingly, the F.A.A.’s failure to inspect and ground the plane “contributed to the death of the…decedents.”

The appeal

The United States appealed the decision claiming that the trial court erred in its finding of a duty on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration. The critical question the appellate court was asked to address was whether the F.A.A. staff in Puerto Rico had a duty to inspect the subject DC-7 and warn the decedents of “irregularities.”

The appellate court acknowledged that the Federal Aviation Act was enacted to promote air safety but that this “hardly creates a legal duty to provide a particular class of passengers particular protective measures.” Further, the issuance of the Continuous Surveillance of Large and Turbined Powered Aircraft order was done gratuitously and did not create a duty to the decedents or any other passengers.

The court ultimately held that the order created a duty of the local inspectors to “perform their jobs in a certain way as directed by their superiors.” The failure to comply with this order, however, was grounds for internal discipline but did not create a cause of action based on negligent conduct against the F.A.A.

It is well-founded that the pilot in command has responsibility to determine that an airplane is safe for flight. There was nothing in this F.A.A. directive that shifted this responsibility to the federal government.

Further, the court found that the failure of the F.A.A. to inspect the plane did not add to the risk of injury to the passengers and there was no evidence that any of the deceased had relied on the F.A.A. to inspect the aircraft prior to takeoff or even knew about Order SO8430.20C.

Who won the appeal?

The United States. The finding of negligence on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration was reversed.

In its opinion, the appellate court concluded, “The passengers on this ill fated flight were acting for the highest of humanitarian motives at the time of the tragic crash. It would certainly be appropriate for a society to honor such conduct by taking those measures necessary to see to it that the families of the victims are adequately provided for in the future. However, making those kinds of decisions is beyond the scope of judicial power and authority. We are bound to apply the law and that duty requires the reversal of the district court’s judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.”

The plaintiff’s request that the case be heard by the United States Supreme court was denied.

JOHN RACANELLI is a Chicago lawyer with an insatiable interest in baseball-related litigation. When not rooting for his beloved Cubs (or working), he is probably reading a baseball book or blog, planning his next baseball trip, or enjoying downtime with his wife and family. He is probably the world’s foremost photographer of triple peanuts found at ballgames and likes to think he has one of the most complete collections of vintage handheld electronic baseball games known to exist. John is a member of the Emil Rothe (Chicago) SABR Chapter. Check out his corner of the internet at Baseball Law Reporter.

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10 years ago

This is an excellent summary of a case that I never knew even existed. Here is the citation if anyone wants to read the full decision from the appeal: 567 F.2d 1140.

10 years ago

Very interesting. Not to be too nitpicky, but I think you forgot a “not” in this sentence: “The failure to comply with this order, however, was grounds for internal discipline but did create a cause of action based on negligent conduct against the F.A.A.”

I never knew about the postscript to Clemente’s death. Thanks for sharing this.

John Racanelli
10 years ago
Reply to  George

George – You’re right. That sentence should read “…did not create a cause of action…” Thanks for catching that.

10 years ago

Fascinating account. I’d never seen the details of this. I guess I understand the ruling. The FAA was not responsible for the inspection, so any attempt to sue for not enforcing the laws would be like Paul Walker’s heirs suing the police for not enforcing the speed limit.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Great story about a really great ball player . Very sad ending to Roberto’s life . I was in college at the time and remember the black and white footage from the scene of the crash . Very tragic but we now know more about what really caused the crash .

9 years ago

So cool I’m 10 and love it

9 years ago

now i learned a lot about roberto

Richard Rossi
9 years ago

My movie I just made “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories” explores this further. It’s available on Amazon now.

Jack Touchton
9 years ago

I’m doing a history project based on Roberto Clemente, and I just wanted to say what a great article this is and how much it helps me. Great job.

Hangar Sixx
9 years ago

The reversal of opinion may have been that realistically, the FAA does not ramp check nor make an inspection prior to each and every flight. FAR 91.7 places responsibility for airworthiness and compliance, squarely upon the PIC (pilot in command). I would tend to agree that it would be hard to blame the FAA for the failing of a pilot and in this case, near criminal behavior of the pilot. Most specifically, to fly without a qualified co pilot and even more outrageous, to fly without ANY flight engineer, let along current and qualified on the DC-7. Sad damn story that never should have happened.