July 14, 2013

Courts will settle with Asiana passengers differently

The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Broken bones in plane accidents usually mean $1 million settlements in the Unites States and in the low five-figure range overseas, Danko said.

In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration put the value of a human life at $6 million when it was contemplating the cost-benefit of a new "cockpit resource management" regulation. But again, Danko said, that estimate applies only in U.S. courts. Foreign courts can be expected to pay far smaller settlements.

In all, the South Korean government agency that regulates that country's insurance industry expects Asiana's insurers to pay out about $175.5 million total – $131 million to replace the plane and another $44.5 million to passengers and the city of San Francisco for damage to the airport. Suh Chang-suk, an official at Financial Supervisory Service, declined to discuss how the watchdog agency calculated its estimate.

The international treaty is commonly referred to as the Montreal Convention because of the Canadian city where it was drafted. It offers international passengers five options for where to seek compensation: where they live, their final destination, where the ticket was issued, where the air carrier is based and the air carrier's principal place of business.

Foreign passengers who had round-trip tickets to final destinations beyond the U.S. face stiff legal challenges to pursue their claims against the airline in the United States, where courts are more receptive to lawsuits and the payouts larger than in the courts of most other nations.

Asiana can also invoke the America legal doctrine of "forum non conveniens" to argue that it's much more convenient for it to litigate the Asian victims' cases in Asia because all parties are based there.

South Korean attorney Suh Dong Hee represented some of the victims of the 1997 Korean Air Lines crash. He said family members of the victims who pursued their case in the United States settled for as much as 100 times more than those who sued in South Korea.

Brian Havel, director of DePaul University's International Aviation Law Institute, said the convention does require the airlines to make immediate "down payments" to victims to help with medical expenses, travel costs and other inconveniences caused by the crash.

"Everyone will get something," Havel said. "But who receives what does largely depend on where they qualify under the convention."

However, Pitre and others say, the foreign passengers are still able to sue others who may have contributed to the accident, such as the plane's manufacturer, airport personnel and even, perhaps, the first responders.

Pitre said he and his clients are investigating whether Boeing Co. shoulders any responsibility for the crash, including potential design flaws in the plane's automated instruments or differences between first-class passengers' seatbelts, which come with a shoulder strap, and the seatbelts in the economy section, which are lap restraints only.

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said the company buys seats from other companies and "simply installs them." He also said the seat belt designs and configurations are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Birtel declined to discuss the other issues Pitre raised.

Authorities said Friday that 15-year-old Liu Yipeng was struck by a fire truck, although it's not clear whether that killed her. Some passengers who called 911 immediately after the crash also complained that the emergency response took too long. Those third parties and others are open to lawsuits in the United States.

San Francisco officials said ambulances could not immediately come too close to the plane out of concern the aircraft would explode.

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