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Families of Boeing Max crash victims still in limbo as company faces new scrutiny, series of lawsuits

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: April 27, 2024, 6:00am

In the five years since two Boeing 737 Max crashes left hundreds grieving around the globe, the families who lost loved ones have been quietly fighting a legal battle against the airplane manufacturer.

Both crashes — killing 189 people in Indonesia in October 2018 and 157 people in Ethiopia four months later — were caused by flawed flight control software on the then-new jet. Of the hundreds of lawsuits filed against Boeing, all but 41 have since settled as Boeing attempted to move past the disaster that left its reputation tarnished and its balance sheet in tatters.

While Boeing has publicly defended its quality control processes and commitment to safety in the wake of the deadly Max crashes, its attorneys worked behind closed doors to settle with the families of those who died.

The remaining cases are playing out as Boeing once again finds itself facing a series of lawsuits from passengers who blame the company for a safety incident involving its Max planes, a near-disaster that reinvigorated scrutiny of Boeing that had waned in the years since the tragedies in Jakarta and Addis Ababa.

In January, a panel blew off the fuselage of a Boeing 737 Max 9 on an Alaska Airlines flight out of Portland. In the months since then, dozens of passengers sued the manufacturer and the airline, alleging both companies failed to ensure the aircraft was safe. Attorneys representing those passengers, many of whom also represent victims’ families from the Max crashes, say they expect more lawsuits to come.

As the legal proceedings continue, it will become clearer whether Boeing can resolve these cases quietly or if, instead, it will face a public reckoning in court.

Boeing contends it has taken steps to improve quality control, increase inspections at its assembly plants and encourage employees to raise safety concerns. In response to one of the first lawsuits filed after the January incident, Boeing asked the court to drop the claims against it. Attorneys for the company wrote in court records that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim against Boeing and pointed the blame at other entities that “supplied parts, components or systems” for the plane.

Boeing said it has worked over the past five years to reach settlements with the families who lost loved ones in the Max crashes. Two years after the March 2019 crash in Ethiopia, the company accepted responsibility for liability in a legal stipulation with the families involved.

“We are deeply sorry to all who lost loved ones on Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. We made an upfront commitment to fully and fairly compensate every family who suffered a loss,” a spokesperson for Boeing said in a statement to The Seattle Times.

“Over the past several years, we have kept our commitment as we settled a significant majority of claims, and we look forward to constructively resolving the remaining cases to ensure that the families are fully and fairly compensated,” the spokesperson continued.

Mark Lindquist, a Tacoma-based attorney who represents one of the victims’ families from the 2019 crash whose case remains open, said he thinks Boeing had expected that time would work in its favor, and that a jury would be more forgiving years after the Max crashes. The January panel blowout changed that, he said.

“Boeing has slow-played these cases for more than five years,” Lindquist said. “When you’re a high-profile company the public has an interest in, they need to just accept responsibility to move forward. Part of accepting responsibility is to resolve these cases fairly.”

Bob Clifford, an attorney whose firm represented more than 70 families who lost loved ones from the Ethiopia Max crash, said the litigation against Boeing is likely to last into 2025, nearing the six-year anniversary of the fatal crash. For the families, the legal process has been emotionally draining and far from satisfying.

Though some of the remaining cases may settle before a scheduled November trial, other families are set on taking the case to a jury, Clifford said.

“There are some people who demand that there be a public reckoning of Boeing’s criminality and wrongdoing — and they would rather a jury decide.”

‘A human being’

Now, all but two of the families of victims of the 2018 crash near Jakarta, Indonesia, have settled with the company, according to attorneys from the X-Law Group representing individuals in one of the remaining cases.

Shortly after the 2019 crash, most victims’ families filed lawsuits against Boeing in federal court in Illinois, where the company was headquartered at the time.

With 157 people on board — 149 passengers and 8 crew members — there were 142 cases filed, Clifford said.

In 2021, two years later, all but two of those families agreed to a stipulation with Boeing that required the company to admit wrongdoing and the plaintiffs to agree not to pursue punitive damages or demand information from Boeing that would dig deeper into what went wrong. Following the stipulation, Boeing admitted that it had “produced an airplane that had an unsafe condition.”

That stipulation guaranteed payments to each family to recognize the loss of their loved ones, something that is never a sure thing if a case goes to trial, said Erin Applebaum, an attorney from Kreindler and Kreindler who is representing some of the victim’s families.

It also guaranteed that Boeing could not ask a judge to move the cases to the family’s home countries, where they may receive smaller sums, attorneys representing the families said.

In the years since that stipulation, Boeing settled roughly 100 of the 142 civil cases in Illinois.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso set three trial dates for six cases each, but each case settled before reaching that stage. The details of those settlements will not be disclosed.

Now, with 37 cases remaining, attorneys representing the families are preparing for the upcoming trial in November to determine how much each family is owed by Boeing. To do so, they are hosting mock trials with a mock jury, reviewing video interviews from people who lost loved ones in the crash, and gathering some quantitative metrics, like a calculation of how much individuals who died would have earned over their lifetimes.

The attorneys also created individual animations to illustrate what each victim experienced in their final moments before the plane crashed, helping to account for a pain and suffering calculation.

“We put together a presentation, we give it to Boeing … to explain this person wasn’t just a seat number. They were a human being,” Applebaum said. “The person who died because of Boeing’s negligence can’t speak for themselves anymore. We have to speak for them.”

Chance to take the stand

Though the remaining 37 cases could go to trial, those proceedings wouldn’t include any new revelations from Boeing documents or depositions of company executives. Boeing’s culpability is a settled issue; those trials are only to determine compensation for each case.

In court records from January, plaintiffs representing the families said they expected roughly 20 of the remaining cases to go to trial. Boeing’s attorneys disagreed — they expect more will reach a conclusion before a jury is convened.

The possibility of Boeing executives taking the stand is still there, though. Two families did not sign the stipulation, and they hope for a trial that forces Boeing to share more about what went wrong, including bringing former CEO Dennis Muilenburg and current CEO Dave Calhoun to the witness stand.

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Those plaintiffs are the families of 24-year-old Samya Rose Stumo, and of a married Kenyan couple, Jared Babu Mwazo and Mercy Ngami Ndivo, who left behind a baby.

Judge Alonso put those two cases on hold as attorneys for Boeing and the other families discussed mediation and settlements. Clifford, who represents the Kenyan family that did not agree to the stipulation, said Judge Alonso had indicated he would revisit the stay in May.

Ralph Nader — consumer advocate, former presidential candidate and the great-uncle of Samya Rose Stumo — is skeptical that will happen. He has accused the judge and Boeing of dragging their feet on litigation and pushing for settlements that take place behind a “curtain of indefinite secrecy.”

In a recent interview with The Seattle Times, Nader said Boeing’s “main goal is to prevent a public trial by jury … and to prevent the discovery of Boeing internal documents and deposition of Boeing executives.”

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