THE ARGUMENT over who was responsible for the crash of that DC10 in Chicago last May is likely to go on for a long time. Neither McDonnel Douglas, which built the plane, nor American Airlines, which flew it, is terribly eager to accept the blame. But fortunately, the argument is not going to interfere with the speedy award of damages to the survivors of those who died in that disaster.

The two corporations told a federal judge in Chicago recently that they are willing to stipulate liability and litigate only the amount of damages to be paid in each case. They added that they have already made settlement offers totaling about $30 million to the relatives of 112 of that accident's 273-victims.

The relatives of any particular survivor do not have to accept that proposal. If they do, they give up the right to persuade a jury it should add punitive damages to the actual damages they have suffered. But if they choose to seek punitive damages, they face the delays and costs of a long trial as well as the substantially larger legal fees they will have to pay out of the jury's award.

The arrangement offered by the two companies is good both for them and for the survivors. The companies will save money by reducing their legal costs and eliminating the possibility of punitive damage awards. Most survivors are likely to end up with as much money under the proposal as they would if full trials were conducted. The only big losers are likely to be the lawyers whose share in cases that are settled without trials is usually much smaller than it would otherwise be.

The question of which corporation ultimately pays the bills -- they have worked out an arrangement to pay jointly while this argument goes on -- is left for them or their insurers to settle or to future litigation. That is as it should be. All too often, the injured person in a damage case is denied payment for months or years, while his legal bills mount and companies that are clearly liable argue over which one will pay.