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Air Disaster Liability Pact OKd

Times Staff Writers

The Boeing Co. and Alaska Airlines won’t contest their liability in the crash three years ago of Alaska’s Flight 261 off Point Mugu under an agreement approved Tuesday, clearing the way for the resolution of outstanding claims and protecting the firms from further scrutiny by families of the victims.

Legal experts say most remaining claims probably will be settled out of court, but a few could go to trial, focusing on the misery of the 83 passengers and five crew members during the more than 10 minutes it took the disabled jet to tumble into the sea.

“Pain and suffering would be a big factor in a trial on the Alaska crash, because the people on the plane were forced to contemplate their deaths before they were actually killed,” said James P. Kreindler, a New York attorney who specializes in aviation litigation.

With the issue of liability resolved, any trial would now deal only with the amount of compensation for victims’ relatives. Boeing and Alaska said they hope to settle the remaining 16 or so claims without going to court.

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“Our goal is to resolve this issue and pay fair compensation,” said Liz Verdier, a spokeswoman for Boeing. “Why drag everyone through a trial?”

Jurors would presumably listen to audio recordings of the pilots as they battled to control the aircraft, as well as consider what passengers went through as the jet flipped and dove in the flight’s final 12 minutes.

“As we’ve previously stated ... Alaska accepts responsibility for this tragedy,” said Bill Ayer, Alaska’s president, chief executive and board chairman. U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer approved the agreement Tuesday in San Francisco.

“What they did is typical of what happens in most accidents,” Kreindler said.

The decision by Boeing and Alaska not to contest liability angered some relatives of crash victims who hoped to see a full examination of the factors that led to the crash. Now, company executives will be spared potentially embarrassing cross-examination on any mistakes in the manufacturer’s design or the airline’s troubled maintenance history.

“Accepting [liability] makes it unnecessary for the trial to delve into all the egregious behavior,” said Paige Stockley Lerner, chairwoman of the Seattle Flight 261 Family Assn., a support group. “As far as the families go, those issues are still on the table.”

Lerner, whose parents were killed in the crash, declined on the advice of her attorney to say whether her case was pending or settled.

“Two corporate giants have stopped attacking each other, but none of that was done on behalf of the families,” Lerner said. “Corporate America is doing their political maneuvering to come out better and save money.”

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The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in December that the MD-83 jetliner went into an uncontrollable dive Jan. 31, 2000, after the failure of its horizontal stabilizer, the wing-like portion of the tail that controls the up-and-down pitch of the nose. The plane was built by McDonnell Douglas, now a part of Boeing.

The stabilizer problem was blamed on the failure of a key component, called a jackscrew. The jackscrew is a large, threaded bolt that raises and lowers the leading edge of the stabilizer.

The NTSB said the jackscrew was not lubricated adequately at Alaska’s maintenance facilities, and this lack of lubrication, which stripped the threads from the nut that held the bolt, was the immediate cause of the crash, which killed everyone on board.

The NTSB’s report cited widespread maintenance deficiencies at Alaska Airlines and lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration as underlying factors in the accident. The board also said that the jackscrew lacked an adequate fail-safe mechanism.

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Under international treaty, airlines such as Alaska are not subject to punitive damages, and a judge last month exempted Boeing from punitive damages. But that still left the airline and manufacturer subject to negligence and product-liability claims.

Eighty-eight wrongful-death suits were filed after the crash, all of them naming both Alaska and Boeing as defendants. More than 70 of the cases have been settled.

Millions in Settlements

Although these settlements are confidential, Kreindler, who represented the plaintiffs in four of them, and Chicago-based aviation attorney Robert Clifford, who represented another, said payouts typically run between $1 million and $9 million per victim. The size of these payments usually depends on such factors as a victim’s age and earning power, the number of dependents and the amount of suffering before the crash, the lawyers said.

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Airlines and aircraft manufacturers now carry up to $2 billion worth of insurance coverage per crash, Kreindler and Clifford said. That insurance has always been more than enough to cover the claims in any accident, Kreindler said. After the crash, Boeing and Alaska reached an agreement on how they would divide any compensation paid out by their insurance companies, he said.

The terms of this agreement have not been made public. Boeing and Alaska have declined comment on any settlements or sharing agreements.

Clifford said the stipulation increases the likelihood that settlements can be reached in the remaining cases. The potential re-creation for jurors of the final minutes of Flight 261 is “the big wild card that would more likely than not drive the industry to settle most of these cases,” he said.

“When you look at this videotape [of a simulation of the plane’s descent] and hear the cockpit voice recorder, you can’t help but visualize what was going on in that cockpit and passenger compartment and say to yourself, ‘There is no way any human being should have to experience what happened,’ ” Clifford said.

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According to the NTSB’s final report on Flight 261, issued late last year, the plane’s pilots began struggling with a mechanical problem not long after takeoff from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The autopilot function was incapable of keeping the plane on an even cruising altitude, forcing the pilots to fly manually, a sign that the horizontal stabilizer had stopped working properly about 13 minutes after the 1:37 p.m. departure.

The NTSB report included excerpts of audio transmissions during the flight’s final minutes.

LAX Considered

Investigators say the problems must have appeared manageable to the pilots who decided not to return to the Puerto Vallarta airport. It wasn’t until about 3:50 p.m., as the plane neared San Diego, that the stabilizer problems became severe enough for the pilots to talk to an airline dispatcher about the possibility of diverting to Los Angeles International Airport.

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The dispatcher said they could land for “safety reasons,” but warned there was up to an hour and half backup due to “major flow problems.”

The captain, Ted Thompson, issued a sharp reply: “I don’t really want to hear about the flow being a problem, because I’m concerned about overflying suitable [emergency] airports.”

Over the next 13 minutes, Thompson and his copilot, William Tansky, debated with dispatch whether to continue on to San Francisco, before deciding to head to LAX. At 4:07 p.m. a mechanic at Alaska Airlines’ LAX facility contacted the struggling pilots via radio to offer possible fixes for controlling the airplane.

The problems worsened, and Thompson broadcast a message to passengers over the intercom: “Folks, we have had a little flight-control problem up here. We’re working on it. ...I don’t anticipate any big problems.” About two minutes later, there was a noise in the back of the plane.

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“You heard it?” Tansky asked.

“Yeah,” Thompson replied. “I think the stab trim broke.”

Three minutes later, the pilots felt a thump, followed seconds later by what the NTSB described as “an extremely loud noise.”

“Mayday! Mayday!” Tansky shouted as the plane began to dive and rolled over on its back.

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“Push! Push! Push!” Thompson yelled back, apparently asking Tansky to help him shove the control yokes forward in an effort to raise the nose.

But without the stabilizer, the plane was doomed.

“Here we go,” Thompson said. A second later, the jetliner slammed into the Pacific near Anacapa Island.

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Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this report.


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