$50 Million Awarded in KAL Jet Disaster
A federal court jury on Wednesday awarded $50 million to the families of 137 passengers killed when a Korean Air Lines plane strayed into Soviet territory and was shot down six years ago.
All 269 people aboard the plane were killed in the Sept. 1, 1983, disaster.
The jury decided on punitive damages after returning a verdict that said KAL had committed willful misconduct. The jury concluded that actions by KAL’s crew aboard Flight 007 were a cause of the aircraft’s destruction by a missile-firing Soviet fighter plane.
The $50 million in punitive damages, if upheld, will be shared equally by the 137 families. Families of victims who did not sue receive no share.
Without the finding of willful misconduct, the families would have been limited to compensation of $75,000 per passenger, a figure set by international treaty.
With the finding, families are free to seek individual damages for such things as lost earnings of a parent or spouse in individual lawsuits in federal courts.
The 137 lawsuits were consolidated into one case in Washington, the case decided Wednesday, to determine whether misconduct occurred and whether punitive damages should be awarded.
George Tompkins, a lawyer defending the airline, said the company would appeal.
In a two-week civil trial, lawyers for families of the victims said that the Boeing 747 was off course almost from the time it left Anchorage and headed out over the Pacific Ocean for Seoul, South Korea.
Wreckage from the disaster was found in the Sea of Japan, hundreds of miles from the plane’s scheduled flight path over the Pacific Ocean.
Two veteran pilots testifying for the families theorized that the plane crew made a mistake in programming at least one of the computerized navigation systems on board the jumbo jet while the aircraft was waiting to take off.
The error, the pilots said, sent the plane far west of its planned Pacific Ocean flight path and into Soviet territory, where it was stalked by Soviet military jets.
Other witnesses suggested that the crew members knew they were off course but failed to return to Anchorage and correct the navigational problem for fear of disciplinary action and loss of respect from their colleagues.
The jury’s verdict “was in accord with all the evidence,” said Donald Madole, a lawyer for the families. “When this plane was flown off course into the danger area . . . it was in fact willful misconduct.”
Lawyers representing KAL rejected those contentions, saying the crew radioed a position report that put it directly on course about an hour before it was shot down.
A defense motion to dismiss the case is pending before the judge.