2006-05-12 / Community

AA 587 Discovery Process Begins Anew

Judge Rules That Maritime Law Controls
By Howard Schwach

All that was left of this B.131 Street home was the garage. A new home stands todayAll that was left of this B.131 Street home was the garage. A new home stands today Two hundred and sixty-five people died when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the streets of Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001 - 260 on the plane and five local residents on the ground. In addition, 24 local residents suffered personal or property damage as a result of the crash of the Airbus A300-600 airliner.

Today, nearly five years later, 11 of the families of those who died in the crash have resisted agreeing to settlements with the defendants in the case - American Airlines and Airbus Industries, causing Federal Judge Robert Sweet to reopen the discovery process that may well finally reveal what caused the second most-deadly airline tragedy in American history.

Among those eleven holdouts are eight passenger cases and three Rockaway cases. One man whose wife died in the crash and who asked not to be identified because he feels the judge was angry that some family members did not accept the settlements proffered by the two defendants, said that he would not settle because he was dissatisfied with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that blamed the crash on First Officer Sten Molin. The NTSB said that Molin, who was flying the departure from JFK Airport that day, unnecessarily and overagressively used the rudder, ripping the tail from the jet.

"I can't believe that they would design a plane that would fall apart when somebody hit the pedals too often," the family member said. "I have seen the stories about all of the accidents that the A300 planes have had since then, and I don't believe [the NTSB report]. I want the court to find the truth and the only way to do that is to refuse to settle"

The discovery process will likely be a long one, says Attorney Robert Spragg, who works for Kreindler and Kreindler in Manhattan, the firm that has the lead for the plaintiff families in all of the cases involving AA 587.

Spragg told The Wave that Judge Robert Sweet, who has all of the cases in his court, also handled the TWA Flight 800 case and that all of the holdouts in that case settled right after the judge made his Choice of Law ruling.

Sweet made that ruling for the AA 587 case on May 6 and Spragg thinks that some of the holdouts may well settle now that the judge has made his ruling that Maritime Law will control the questions of compensatory and punitive damages. The ruling will allow potentially higher damages for the people whose relatives who were passengers or crew and who have not yet settled their cases.

New York Law controls for all those who died or were damaged on the ground. That allows for punitive claims against Airbus should negligence be shown during the discovery process that just started anew.

Airbus had argued that French law, which does not allow for punitive damages, should have controlled the settlements because the plane was built in France.

Spragg told The Wave that the judge made the ruling on maritime law because "once the tail fell off over the navigable waters of Jamaica Bay, it was inevitable that it would crash and that it crashed on land does not change the fact that it began over water."

While Spragg says that the decision will "not make a huge difference" for those who have not settled, it was important to the case to get which law controls the case out of the way before discovery was reopened.

The discovery process was stayed by order of the court in June of 2003 to allow a consortium of Airbus and American Airlines to offer settlements to the families. More that 250 settlements were made and the court extended the stay twice to see if all of the cases could be settled.

The eleven cases that remain today, however, refused all settlement offers.

In order for maritime law to append to a case, there has to be a significant connection to waterborne traffic.

In this case, Judge Sweet ruled, "The aircraft was scheduled to make a 1500-mile transoceanic flight from New York City to the Dominican Republic. There is no question, but for the development of air travel, this trip - or some portion thereof - would have been conducted by a waterborne vessel, and that it therefore bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity."

Several family members told The Wave after the reopening of the discovery process that they hope that Airbus will have to provide documents that show the company knew that the material that makes up the tail would disband, making it prone to separate from the aircraft.

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