Families of Boeing Crash Victims Can Challenge U.S. Settlement, Judge Rules

A federal judge in Texas on Friday handed a significant victory to relatives of the victims of two deadly Boeing 737 Max crashes who are seeking to overturn a $2.5 billion legal settlement between Boeing and the Justice Department and to pursue criminal charges against the company.

In a strongly worded ruling, Judge Reed O’Connor wrote that “the court finds that the tragic loss of life that resulted from the two airplane crashes was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Boeing’s conspiracy to defraud the United States.” That being the case, he said, the 346 people who were killed in the crashes in 2018 and 2019 qualify as “crime victims” under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

“Now we get a chance to go in front of the judge to say the remedy for this is to throw out this rotten deal and try to get Boeing the corporation criminally prosecuted and its leadership criminally prosecuted for its crimes that led to the deaths of 346 people,” Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who has represented relatives of victims in the case pro bono, said in an interview.

A spokesman for Boeing declined to comment on Friday. The Justice Department also declined to comment on the ruling.

The relatives of some of the crash victims said the deferred prosecution agreement between the Justice Department and the company violated their rights. The deal, which resolved a criminal charge that Boeing had conspired to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration, was struck last year in the waning days of the Trump administration.

As a result, Boeing agreed to establish a $500 million fund to compensate the families of those who died, pay a fine of nearly $244 million and pay $1.77 billion in compensation to airlines. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland participated in a video call with some of the victims’ families and their representatives in January but has stood by the deal.

In October 2018, one of the Max jetliners, Lion Air Flight 610, crashed minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. Then in March 2019, another Max, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, crashed, also just minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board.

The criminal case against the company revolved around the actions of two employees who withheld information from the F.A.A., which regulates Boeing and evaluates its planes, about changes made to flight-stabilizing software known as MCAS. The software was later implicated in both crashes.

The families “have established adequate direct causal connection between Boeing’s criminal conspiracy and the resulting crashes,” Judge O’Connor wrote in the ruling on Friday.

One of the relatives, Naoise Connolly Ryan, said in a statement after the ruling that “the government deliberately concealed its agreement with Boeing from us — the victims’ families — and provided complete immunity to the company responsible for our loved ones’ deaths.”

Ms. Ryan, whose husband, Mick, was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, added, “Families like mine are the true victims of Boeing’s criminal misconduct, and our views should have been considered before the government gave them a sweetheart deal.”

Mr. Cassell, a professor at University of Utah College of Law and an expert on crime victims’ rights, called the ruling “a seminal moment in the crime victims’ rights movement nationally.” He added that deals reached behind closed doors without consulting victims or, in homicides, their families were going to be harder to defend.

“It signals that business as usual is not going to work,” he said.


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