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Alaska Airlines, Boeing Admit Crash Role

The Associated Press

June 3, 2003

Dateline: SEATTLE Alaska Airlines has taken legal responsibility for a January 2000 jet crash that killed all 88 aboard, and Boeing said it would not contest liability over the plane’s design.

Both positions were declared in filings Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, where wrongful death suits stemming from the crash of Flight 261 are pending.

As a result, the only issue before a jury if the cases go to trial will be what damages should be paid to survivors of the victims who have yet to settle with the two companies, The Seattle Times reported.

Cases brought by survivors have been settled for undisclosed sums. There are 16 1/2 wrongful death suits pending; the half represents some members of one victim’s family.

Alaska admitted liability under an international treaty covering the flight and agreed to pay whatever compensatory damages a jury awards. A company spokesman would not comment Monday, the newspaper said.

The West Coast regional carrier, which remains the subject of a separate federal criminal investigation into the crash, may later seek compensation from Boeing.

Alaska previously blamed Boeing-approved grease and flaws in the design and maintenance plan for the ill-fated MD-83, a theory rejected in December by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Over 20 minutes, the plane went into two steep dives, flew upside down and plunged into the Pacific Ocean off Port Hueneme, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles, on a flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle on Jan. 31, 2000. All 83 passengers and five crew members died.

The safety board concluded the primary cause was improper lubrication of a jackscrew assembly that controls the horizontal stabilizer on the tail. Threads on the jackscrew’s nut sheared off, causing the pilots to lose control of the plane.

The board also found that lack of a fail-safe system in the plane contributed to the crash but did not recommend that the jackscrew be redesigned, asking only that the Federal Aviation Administration study the design of the plane.

Boeing, which previously said Alaska failed to maintain the plane properly, decided not to contest liability any longer because it wanted to bring about an “expeditious resolution,” company spokeswoman Liz Verdier said.

“In not contesting, we do not admit liability in these proceedings, period,” Verdier said. “We’re anxious to close this out for the families.”

Brian Panish of Los Angeles, a lawyer for several families, said the filings were an attempt to prevent a full airing of the facts surrounding the crash in hopes of reducing the damage amounts.

“Boeing’s waving a white flag,” Panish said.

Last month Judge Charles R. Breyer, who is overseeing the litigation, ruled out punitive damages against Boeing.

Alaska is immune from punitive damages under an international treaty.

Breyer now must decide how much jurors will hear about maintenance lapses at Alaska and the history of the plane, which was built by McDonnell Douglas before the company was absorbed by Boeing in a merger in 1997.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin June 17.

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