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MH370 CRASH: MAS, Boeing named in relative's legal petition in US

Publication Date : 27-03-2014


Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and Boeing have been named in a petition for discovery filed by a relative of a passenger on board Flight MH370, in what experts say will likely be the first case in a long and complicated legal fallout from the missing flight.

And indicating the global nature of upcoming lawsuits, the case was filed in an Illinois court on behalf of Dr Januari Siregar, an Indonesian lawyer whose 25-year-old nephew Firman was on the flight.

In addition, the Chicago-based law firm representing Dr Siregar, Ribbeck Law, has told reporters that it expects to represent more than half of the families of the 239 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 777-200 in a lawsuit against aircraft-maker Boeing and operator MAS, as well as other potential defendants.

The law firm says the focus of the suit would be Boeing, as it believes the incident was caused by mechanical failure.

Monica Kelly, its head of Global Aviation Litigation, said in Kuala Lumpur that the firm now represents fewer than 50 families of passengers on board, and that it would seek at least US$1 million in compensation from Boeing, reported Bloomberg News.

There had been initial reports that such a lawsuit had already been filed on behalf of Dr Siregar, but he told The Straits Times that he is not suing the airline or Boeing, but simply petitioning for discovery for now.

"We are not after money or launching an insurance claim, we just want answers. Filing that petition is our way of actively seeking the truth," he said, adding that he feared the Malaysian authorities might call off the search.

MAS has responded to queries on the petition, with a spokesman saying: "Malaysia Airlines is aware of (it) and our lawyers have been advised of this development. At this point in time, our top priority remains to provide any and all assistance to the families of the passengers and crew. Other matters will be dealt with appropriately."

When claims do inevitably arrive, lawyers tell The Straits Times, how much the airline will have to pay out will depend very much on two factors: What investigators determine to be the reason the plane was lost, and where the passengers file their lawsuits.

"The law of damages is controlled by the place that has jurisdiction, so (the amounts) could (differ) significantly," said Ronald Goldman, a senior partner with Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman that represented numerous families of victims in the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Most aviation lawyers say passengers would most likely try to file their suits in the US, where payouts tend to be more generous than those in Malaysia or China.
The Montreal Convention, an international treaty that sets out the rights of airline passengers, stipulates rules which govern where the lawsuits are filed. They include factors such as where the carrier operates, where the tickets were bought, the destination of the aircraft, and the permanent residence of the passenger.

The convention also outlines what is known as special drawing limits - how much an airline has to pay passengers in compensation for an accident, even if it can show that it has taken all necessary precautions and is not at fault for what happened.

"It's not a question of blame. It is absolute liability against the airline, even if the airline is not negligent," said lawyer James Kreindler, who is representing the families of some of the victims of the Asiana Airlines crash last year.

The special drawing rights, a mix of currency values determined by the International Monetary Fund, are currently worth between US$160,000 and US$175,000 per person. By those calculations alone, MAS could be liable for over US$40 million for the 239 passengers and crew on board.

But lawyers say claims are likely to go beyond special drawing rights, as most will likely claim that the airline was at fault. For claims beyond that amount, MAS will have to pay as well, unless it can show that a third party is solely liable, says Kreindler.

For now, he notes, none of the scenarios seem to indicate such an instance: "No one is alleging that a missile shot the plane out of the air."

The convention has a statute of limitations of two years, and victims have been known to make claims and receive payments even before investigations into the cause of the crash are complete.

The black box of Air France Flight 447 that disappeared in 2009 was not discovered until two years later, but the families of crash victims received their compensation before then.

Goldman said that the final settlements tend to be kept confidential, but he has seen them range up to tens of millions. He warned, though, that no two cases are alike, and families of passengers sitting across the aisle from each other might receive very different settlements.

MAS will probably face substantial claims even if no wreckage is ever recovered, he added.

"Arguments will certainly be put forward that aeroplanes just don't disappear without something being wrong."


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