A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that the family members of passengers killed on a Boeing 737 Max plane in Ethiopia can seek damages for the “pre-impact emotional distress” their loved ones faced in 2019.
Boeing had argued earlier this year that evidence presented by lawyers about the pain and suffering of victims would have been speculative. U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonsoin Chicago rejected that argument.
The decision was the latest in a multiyear legal fight between families of the dead and the airplane manufacturer. Relatives of many of the 346 people killed on Max planes in Ethiopia — and Indonesia the year before — have settled with the company, but a handful of cases are headed for trial in Illinois on June 20.
Alonso noted that jurors will hear testimony about the history of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, including a description of the aircraft’s movements before the crash outside the capital of Addis Ababa.
“Based on even a bare-bones version of that evidence, jurors could plainly draw a reasonable inference … that the passengers experienced emotional distress as the aircraft rose and fell, rose again, then plunged,” Alonso wrote in his ruling.
A lawyer for the families, Robert A. Clifford, said in a statement that the victims “endured extreme G-forces, braced for impact, knew the airplane was malfunctioning, and ultimately plummeted nose-down to the ground at nearly 600 miles per hour, leaving a crater 30 feet deep.”
As a result of the ruling, evidence of the emotional distress, pain and suffering the passengers faced will be presented to jurors to hold Boeing accountable, Clifford said.
Boeing on Wednesday reiterated that the company is “deeply sorry to all who lost loved ones” on the two flights.
“We acknowledged the terrible impact of these tragic accidents and made an upfront commitment to fully and fairly compensate every family who suffered a loss,” Boeing said in a statement, noting that it has settled “a significant majority of claims and we will continue to work to constructively resolve the remaining cases.”
In a legal motion, Boeing argued that under Illinois law, compensation for pain and suffering is at issue only when it is caused by bodily injury. The company’s motion said injuries cited by families’ attorneys were speculative.
In his ruling, Alonso rejected Boeing’s argument that “the passengers had no time to experience conscious pain and suffering after injury because they died immediately upon impact.” The judge said families are not required to prove that passengers were injured to seek damages for the fright and terror they faced before the crash.
The planes crashed after a faulty automated flight-control system repeatedly forced their nosesdown, overpowering actions taken by the pilots. Congressional investigators said the crashes resulted from a culmination of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing engineers, a lack of transparency from Boeing management and insufficient oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration.