By Luz Lazo
Lawsuits continue to pile up against Chicago-based Boeing from families of passengers killed in a Lion Air crash in October, alleging the manufacturer failed to warn pilots and airlines about a flight-control problem on the 737 Max 8 aircraft involved in the deadly crash off the coast of Indonesia, and another earlier this month in Ethiopia.
Two lawsuits filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, also point to flaws in the certification process of the jetliner, handled by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“There is no question that Boeing is responsible for these accidents and the only question is the degree of culpability,” said Steve Marks, an attorney with the Miami-based firm Podhurst Orseck, who is representing the families of 20 Lion Air crash victims.
The lawsuits, which cite a defective design, along with inadequate safety warnings, were filed on behalf of the families of Lion Air passengers Rudi Roni Lumbantoruan and Remand Ramadhan, who died when Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after taking off from Jakarta on Oct. 29. All 189 people on board were killed.
More than 30 relatives of those who died in the crash have sued Boeing in its hometown of Chicago, including the family of the plane’s co-pilot, Harvino, who filed a lawsuit in December claiming that the plane “was defective and unreasonably dangerous” for its intended use.
Harvino was 41 years old and had 5,174 hours of flying experience, according to a preliminary report on the crash issued by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee in November.
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits and the allegations they contain.
More relatives of the Lion Air crash victims are expected to file lawsuits against the company in coming weeks. Attorneys said they also have begun to set up estates for the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash, and are preparing cases against Boeing.
Preliminary evidence from the wreckage of the March 10 Ethiopia Airlines crash showed similarities to the Indonesia crash, leading aviation safety authorities around the world to ground the 737 Max 8.
The Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed shortly after takeoff in a farm field about 40 miles from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 passengers and crew members.
The new Lion Air lawsuits come amid revelations that airline employees pressured families of the victims into signing a release form, agreeing to accept a relatively low amount of compensation and renouncing all rights to sue the airline, Boeing and a host of other companies and subcontractors, according to attorneys representing crash victims. The story was first reported by the New York Times.
Marks said he knows at least 15 relatives who signed the agreement, which in exchange gave them what the airline insurer called “humanitarian payment” in the amount of 1.3 billion rupiah, or $91,600. Marks turned down those cases, he said, because a U.S. court would probably say it would be up to Indonesian courts to determine if the agreements are enforceable. The releases would have to be rescinded before any lawsuit could proceed.
“It is a horrible situation when the airline takes advantage of these folks after they have killed their loved ones. It’s unconscionable,” Marks said.
The lawsuits allege that the two-month-old Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed because, “among other things, Boeing defectively designed a new flight control system for the Boeing 737 Max 8 that automatically and erroneously pushes the aircraft’s nose down, and because Boeing failed to warn of the defect.”
The complaints also allege that the FAA delegated authority to Boeing to approve portions of the aircraft certification process and assisted Boeing in rushing the delivery of the Max 8, resulting in “several crucial flaws” in the safety analysis report Boeing ultimately delivered to the FAA.
“As certification proceeded, FAA managers urged its technical experts to speed up the process. Development of the Max was lagging nine months behind the rival Airbus A320neo. Time was of the essence for Boeing. So, throughout the certification process, FAA technical experts were pressured by their superiors to delegate more and more authority to Boeing,” the lawsuit says.
Marks said his clients intend to sue the federal government, and to file more lawsuits against Boeing in coming days. The victims’ families, he said, want to find out why and how the tragedy happened, make sure that it does not occur again, and hold the responsible parties accountable.
“Obviously, Boeing went through a process which was rather atypical of the normal certification process and it is becoming more apparent that the FAA either knowingly or unwittingly was an accomplice to Boeing violating the normal procedures,” he said.
The preliminary investigation attributed the Lion Air crash at least partly to a faulty sensor causing an automated system to push the nose of the plane down while the pilots wrestled to pull the aircraft up. The result was an erratic flight path in which the plane descended and ascended repeatedly before plunging into the Java Sea.
The possibility that the same scenario occurred in the Ethiopia Airlines crash prompted most countries to ground the plane, including the United States last week.
According to the preliminary report, the Lion Air 737 Max 8 had multiple failures starting Oct. 26, including the four flights before the one that crashed Oct. 29.
The plane’s maintenance log showed pilots reported problems such as incorrect displays of speeds and altitude, that airline mechanics worked to resolve the problems and at one point replaced the angle-of-attack sensor, which detects whether the wings have enough lift to keep flying, according to the report.
A day before the plane went down, the crew of a flight from Bali to Jakarta got a stall warning at around 400 feet and fought to control a malfunction with the aircraft’s trim system, which was driving the nose down. According to news reports, a third pilot in the cockpit helped the crew disable the faulty flight-control system.
The next day, the crew of the doomed flight took off after tests on the ground “found that the problem had been solved,” the report said.