Alice Springs hot air balloon company beats charges

  • Stephanie Bernoth, 35, died boarding a hot air balloon ride in Alice Springs
  • The balloon’s inflation fan sucked in the scarf around her neck and strangled her
  • NT Supreme Court has ruled hot air balloon rides fall under Commonwealth law
  • This means Outback Ballooning cannot be held criminally responsible

Stephanie Bernoth, a 35-year-old Sydney woman, died in bizarre circumstances in 2013 after her scarf got sucked into an inflation fan and strangled her as she boarded a hot air balloon in Alice Springs.

On Thursday, the Northern Territory Supreme Court ruled that the hot air balloon company will not be held criminally responsible for her death due to a legal technicality.

But they could still be stripped of their licence to operate.

Stephanie Bernoth 35 (pictured) died after her scarf got caught in a hot air balloon inflation fan

The three judges found that all aviation – including hot air balloon rides – fall under Commonwealth laws and not Territory laws, meaning the Northern Territory Work Health Authority cannot prosecute but potentially wipe them of their air operator’s license.

In 2014, the authority took Bernoth’s case to court and claimed that Outback Ballooning didn’t isolate the inflation fan from the public, or warn passengers about the hazards of getting on and off board whilst wearing loose clothing.  

A year later that complaint was ruled ‘invalid’ – and a Commonwealth matter.

 “Although there is not specific Commonwealth legislation as to the safe operation of inflation fans, their use inflating balloons and embarking passengers is within the scope of Commonwealth regulation and CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) oversight,” Magistrate David Bamber said in his judgement at the time. 

The NT Work Health Authority challenged the decision in the Supreme Court but it was thrown out, allowing them to launch a prosecution which, if successful, could have seen the hot air balloon company slapped with a $1.5 million fine.

But the NT Supreme Court Chief Justice Trevor Riley, Justice Stephen Southwood and Justice Jenny Blokland ruled that all aviation is covered by Commonwealth law.

Outback Ballooning cannot be held criminally responsible for Bernoth's (pictured) death

Outback Ballooning cannot be held criminally responsible for Bernoth’s (pictured) death

“The federal law was a complete statement of the law governing the safety of air navigation including safety both on the ground and in-flight,” Justice Riley said.

“It covered the embarkation of passengers in the circumstances of this matter.

The federal law was intended to cover the field and was not intended to operate in conjunction with any state or Territory scheme directed to the same end.”