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Longtime Plane Crash Atty Takes Lead In Ethiopian Air Suit

By Lauraann Wood

Law360 (September 17, 2019, 10:16 PM EDT) — An Illinois attorney who has represented victims of most major commercial airline crashes in the last 40 years was appointed Tuesday to lead a consolidated lawsuit seeking to hold the Boeing Co. liable for the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash.

Attorney Robert A. Clifford of Clifford Law Offices will take charge in the consolidated litigation, which includes 97 individual complaints filed since March over the disaster that killed 157 people, according to an announcement from Clifford’s representative. Clifford represents 47 of those plaintiffs. 

Serving on an executive committee in the litigation will be co-chairs Steven C. Marks of Podhurst Orseck PA and Justin T. Green of Kreindler & Kreindler LLP. Clifford Law’s Tracy A. Brammeier will be liaison counsel.

The case now turns to discovery. The plaintiffs plan to focus, in particular, on discovering what Boeing knew following the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash that involved one of the company’s 737 Max 8 planes and killed 189 people less than five months earlier than the March 10 Ethiopian Air crash, Clifford told Law360 Tuesday. The Ethiopian Air disaster also involved a Max 8 plane.

“Certainly, once the Lion Air crash occurred, you know doggone well that there was talk going on between Boeing and the [Federal Aviation Administration] in Washington, D.C., about grounding of the plane … or trying to explain what occurred,” he said. “That’s a matter of prime importance to all of the plaintiffs because we think it’s a major distinction between Lion Air and Ethiopian Air in terms of [proving] … the ET 302 crash was entirely preventable.”

Discovery will be consolidated among all of the plaintiffs, while damages will be individualized for each of those who lost their lives in the Ethiopian Air crash.

Clifford told Law360 he doesn’t expect the case to end in a settlement but in a courtroom showdown.

Boeing agreed Tuesday to go through voluntary mediation for families interested in talking settlement, but “there are families who feel very strongly about pursuing this case to the end against Boeing,” he said.

Clifford’s work in aviation litigation began in 1979, when he represented victims of an American Airlines plane crash caused by an engine that fell off the aircraft’s left wing shortly after takeoff. He told Law360 he also served as liaison counsel in litigation surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, plane attacks, and he was involved in litigating the cases that resulted from the 2009 Turkish Airline crash that killed nine passengers and crewmembers while landing in Amsterdam.

Clifford’s request to take charge in the case was unopposed.

Global aviation regulators grounded the Max 8 after the Ethiopian Air crash, but the FAA was the last to issue a grounding order.

The family of Rwandan citizen Jackson Musoni was the first to sue Boeing over the Ethiopian Air crash. Dozens of plaintiffs claim the Max 8 contained a defective flight stabilization system that Boeing knew about but hid from regulators and pilots in a rush to market the plane.

Boeing has answered the suits’ claims, saying in July that it is not responsible for the crash because it was caused by the actions of third parties over which the company had no control.

The suits also claim that technical experts with the FAA were pressed by higher-ups during the aircraft’s certification process to delegate more authority to Boeing, which was under pressure to bring the jet to the market as it competed with European rival Airbus.

The FAA has also come under intense scrutiny relating to its aircraft certification process since the Ethiopian Air and Lion Air crashes. FAA officials defended that process during a congressional hearing in July, saying it did not compromise safety when it handed some oversight to Boeing.

Boeing and the Ethiopian Air victims’ families are due back in court for a status hearing in November.

Representatives for Boeing did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Robert Clifford of Clifford Law Offices.

Boeing is represented by Bruce Duplan Campbell, Christopher Martin Ledford, Daniel Thomas Burley, Jonathan R. Buck, Mack Harrison Shultz Jr. and Michael E. Scoville of Perkins Coie LLP.

The case is In re: Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 Crash, case number 1:19-cv-02170, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

–Additional reporting by Dean Seal and Linda Chiem. Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

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