The legal fight over who will pay multimillion-dollar damage claims to the injured and to the families of those killed in last year's Air Florida crash reaches a major juncture today as the one-year statute of limitations on filing those claims expires.
With that limit in mind, lawyers in the last week have filed several more suits, bringing to 73 the total filed so far by injured passengers, relatives of those killed and by people on the 14th Street bridge when the Boeing 737 crashed.
The plaintiffs have sued the airline, Boeing and American Airlines, which de-iced the plane before takeoff, for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
Lawyers familiar with airline crash cases estimate the plaintiffs will probably get a total of $35 million to $60 million--a considerable amount, but far less than was involved in major crashes such as the 1979 American Airlines DC10 in Chicago, which killed 273 persons. Many suits in that accident are still pending, but the totals paid out may approach $200 million, according to lawyers familiar with that case.
In the Air Florida crash, attorneys for the airline have settled 21 suits, including five last week. Many more out-of-court settlements are expected before March 31, when the trial on liability is scheduled to begin in U.S. District Court here.
That trial, which will decide only which of the three defendants is liable and for what percentage, if any, of the eventual damages, is expected to take as long as two months. Individual trials on the money due each survivor or relatives of those who died will begin after that.
Lawyers for both sides say the presiding judge, Joyce Hens Green, set a firm deadline for pretrial preparation and is holding both sides to it, meaning the litigation could be among the fastest ever in air disaster cases.
Although going to trial 14 months after the accident might not seem all that quick, similar legal battles, such as the one after an Eastern Airlines plane crashed in North Carolina in 1974, have taken as long as six years to come to trial.
To outsiders, it might appear that the jury trial in March will pit those injured or the families of those killed in the crash against the three defendants. (The federal government, originally named as a defendant in many of the suits, has been dropped from most.)
Technically, the plaintiffs are suing because they have to show that one or more of the defendants are at fault and liable for damages. But as a practical matter, it is virtually impossible for the plaintiffs to lose--especially when Air Florida is claiming Boeing was at fault, Boeing is saying Air Florida and American were at fault, and American is saying simply that it was not to blame.
"One of them has to be right," says Miami lawyer Aaron Podhurst, attorney for several plaintiffs. "This wasn't an act of God." Someone is going to pay, and the plaintiffs could hardly care who signs the checks.
The real dispute in the trial this March is among the defendants.
In fact, the March 31 trial on liability wouldn't be necessary if Air Florida and Boeing could agree on how much each should contribute. American, which is arguing that it de-iced the plane properly, is unlikely to have any financial stake in the outcome, since it has an indemnity agreement with Air Florida that requires Air Florida to pay any portion of blame assessed to American.
The defendants in crash cases often agree among themselves who is going to pay what, saving themselves--and the surviviors and families of the victims--millions of dollars in trial costs.
That is not happening here, says Air Florida attorney George N. Tompkins, because "Air Florida feels quite strongly that Boeing should bear responsibility for the accident. Boeing feels quite strongly otherwise."
Tompkins has argued that Boeing knew, but failed to alert Air Florida, of the plane's tendency to pitch up at the nose in icy weather. Pitch-up was the main reason for the crash, Air Florida contends.
Boeing denies this contention and says it provided all relevant information on the possibility of pitch-up. Boeing says it has no liability for the crash.
After the jury decides who was at fault, and to what degree, the specific damage trials can begin.
There, too, the outcome is pretty well set, lawyers point out, because standard tables and charts are used to provide guidelines on what is likely to be paid out. That is why these cases, especially when they involve veteran litigators on both sides, as this one does, often settle before the damage trials.
The settlement figures are under court seal, but lawyers familiar with the suits say the settlements are falling within the usual range for air disasters: generally several hundred thousand dollars to $1 million.
The figures in individual cases vary widely, depending on a series of factors, including the age, earning capacity, health and number of dependents of those who died.
Settlements end the litigation as far as the survivors or families of the victims are concerned. But the legal battles in those cases and others will go on, since Air Florida intends to try to collect from Boeing a share of the settlements.
In addition, Air Florida has sued the Federal Aviation Administration in every case, arguing that air traffic controllers permitted another plane to land too close behind the Air Florida plane, pressuring the Air Florida pilots to take off.
And there is another suit pending. That's the District's $1 million suit filed last July against Air Florida. The city is suing for damages to the bridge and to police and fire department rescue boats, and for general rescue service costs. No trial date has been set in that case