After three days of difficult deliberations, a federal jury Friday found Pan American World Airways guilty of willful negligence in permitting a bomb to be smuggled aboard the jumbo jetliner that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, claiming 270 lives.
The verdict climaxed a nearly 11-week trial pitting the now-defunct airline against families of the victims on Flight 103. Dozens of the victims' relatives burst into tears and smiles and hugged one another as the jury's decision was announced in U.S. District Court.
"One of the jurors turned to me and smiled, and then I think I knew what the outcome would be," said Eleanor Bright of Brookline, Mass., who lost her husband in the bombing.
The jurors, who only the day before had complained of being hopelessly deadlocked, found Pan Am guilty of "willful misconduct" in the lax security measures that failed to detect the plastic-explosive bomb smuggled aboard Flight 103 from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York.
Two Pan Am subsidiaries, Alert Management Inc. and Pan American World Services, also were found guilty of willful misconduct. Alert operated the airline's security operations at foreign airports.
Friday's verdicts open an avenue for the families to seek further damages, but those won't be awarded automatically. Trials will have to be held on individual cases. As a result, the legal struggles for the victims' families, who are seeking $300 million or more in damages, could be prolonged for years.
Pan Am, once America's premier aviation company, went out of business last year, but its insurers are liable for any judgment.
"It is our hope that the individual damage cases which follow will be settled in a fair and expeditious manner so that the victims' families can be justly and adequately compensated," Paul Hudson, president of a group calling itself Families of Pan Am 103, said in a statement.
Hudson added that the families also hoped that the airline industry would learn a lesson from the case and boost airport security standards.
Thomas G. Plaskett, former chairman of Pan Am, said in a statement that an appeal would be launched. "Much of what we do know with certainty about Lockerbie was not shared with this jury, and so today's verdict, much like the whole affair, remains clouded by uncertainty," he contended.
The bombing over the Scottish village of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, killed all 259 persons aboard the plane and 11 people on the ground. Under international treaties, liability damages are limited to $75,000 for each victim, unless willful negligence is proved.
In closing arguments, attorneys for Pan Am argued that the airline had no control over the terrorist bombing and said that the families of the victims were simply out for "private vengeance."
Lawyers for the victims' families charged that the airline had put profit ahead of the safety of its passengers and was cutting corners to hold down security costs. "This case is not about terrorism," said Lee S. Kreindler, lead lawyer for the victims' families. "This case is about the failure to meet the threat of terrorism."
The plaintiffs maintained that the bomb was hidden inside a cassette player in an unaccompanied suitcase that was improperly transferred to Flight 103 by Pan Am employees from an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt.
On Thursday morning, about an hour after resuming work for the day, the jurors sent a note to Judge Thomas C. Platt saying their deliberations were going nowhere and they could not reach an agreement.
"I know it's hard," Platt responded. "I know it's difficult. I know it's exasperating at times, but try to do the best you can."
Johanna Maas, a luxury car saleswoman in Pittsburgh, Pa., who is vice president of Families of Pan Am 103, said in a telephone interview Friday that the victims' families were surprised by the guilty verdict.
"We were totally prepared for the worst," she said. "Every indication we had as late as yesterday was that the best we could expect was a hung jury. They were just out too long. This is simply gratifying. I'm shaking. It makes you continue to feel as if one day you will see justice."
She said that the families still want to see a trial for the two Libyans who last year were indicted in the bombing case. A federal grand jury in Washington handed down the indictment, but Libya has refused to turn the men over to U.S. authorities to stand trial.