Families of crash victims challenge Boeing settlement in US court

Boeing had admitted to having committed fraud in exchange for the dropping of some of the proceedings in a January 2021 agreement. PHOTO: REUTERS

FORT WORTH, UNITED STATES (AFP) - The families of victims of the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 asked a Texas judge on Tuesday (May 3) to overturn a US$2.5 billion (S$3.5 billion) settlement between the aircraft manufacturer and the United States government.

Under that agreement, Boeing admitted to having committed fraud in exchange for the Department of Justice dropping some of the proceedings against it over the deadly crashes of Lion Air in Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines, which killed 346 people in total and caused the Max to be grounded globally for 20 months.

This Jan 7, 2021 arrangement was the focus of a court hearing on Tuesday in Fort Worth, Texas.

"They messed up by making the crime fraud rather than manslaughter," said Ms Catherine Berthet, a French woman who lost her 28-year-old daughter when the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed near Addis Ababa on March 10, 2019.

"We believe that the rights of the victims' families have not been respected," she told AFP. "We have not been consulted. We ask to be heard."

The January 2021 agreement included a US$500 million compensation fund for victims' relatives, US$1.77 billion in compensation to the airlines and a US$243 million criminal fine.

Boeing has admitted that two of its employees had misled a group within the Federal Aviation Authority that was to prepare training for pilots in using Boeing's new MCAS flight software, which was implicated in both crashes.

"The judge listened carefully and I think had a lot of concerns about how was it that the Justice Department can seal this agreement from the families," said Mr Paul Cassell, lawyer for the families in the audience.

Relatives of the victims are now hoping for a quick decision from the Fort Worth judge.

"It's been three years and I never go to sleep before four or five in the morning," Mr Berthet said. "I still have panic attacks. There are things I don't do anymore. There are films that I can no longer see, music that I can no longer listen to."

Said Mr Paul Njoroge, who lost his 33-year-old wife, his children aged nine months, four years and six years, as well as his mother-in-law in the Ethiopia crash: "I would like to see that the US Department of Justice is responsible enough to make sure that corporations don't get away with murder."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.