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Liability Accepted in Alaska Jet Crash

San Francisco Chronicle
Bob Egeiko
Staff Writer

A federal judge found Alaska Airlines and Boeing Co. legally responsible Tuesday for the January 2000 crash of a San Francisco-bound jet that killed 88 people, a ruling that lets the companies narrow the evidence a jury will hear about their conduct.

Next month’s trial of a suit by some victims’ family members will be limited to the issue of how much money the companies should pay them, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said.

His order came a day after Alaska Airlines formally accepted liability for the crash and Boeing, designer of the plane, said it will not contest liability. Without those concessions, the trial, like over civil suits, would begin with evidence on responsibility for the crash and would consider damages only after liability was established.

The companies described their unusual actions as attempts to speed up resolution of the damage suits, all but 16 of which have been settled with the victims’ relatives. But a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs contended the companies were engaged in a calculated tactical maneuver to reduce damages by limiting evidence at the trial.

“When the jury would have seen the conduct of Boeing and Alaska, they would have become enraged,” attorney Kevin Boyle said. By accepting liability, he said, the companies can exclude most of the evidence about the cause of the crash, although the plaintiffs will urge Breyer to allow some such evidence.

Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier said the manufacturer “elected not to contest (liability) simply to expedite” resolution of the case.

“We’re not admitting liability,” Verdier said. But after seeing the judge’s order, she acknowledged that he had found Boeing liable, with the company’s consent.

Bill Ayer, Alaska Airlines president, chief executive officer and chairman, said his company has been forthright about the crash.

“As we’ve previously stated on many occasions, both in open court over the past three years as well as in court documents filed earlier this year, Alaska accepts responsibility for this tragedy,” he said.

The MD-83 twin-engine jet, headed from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle, crashed into the Pacific near the Channel Islands off the Ventura County coast. All 83 passengers and five crew members were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the cause was lack of grease on the jackscrew, a part on the horizontal stabilizer that controlled the plane’s up-and-down movement, leading to the part’s failure in flight. The board blamed lax federal oversight of Alaska’s maintenance, as well as the airline’s failure to check its planes for wear and tear often enough.

A federal judge ruled in May 2001 that the victims’ families could sue the airline for the loss of their loved ones and for physical injuries and emotional trauma the victims experienced as the planed plunged 30,000 feet.

But he said an international treaty protects the airline from punitive damages, which are awarded for intentional or reckless misconduct. Breyer, who later took over the case, ruled last month that the plaintiffs could not seek punitive damages from Boeing because they had failed to provide evidence that the manufacturer showed reckless or casual disregard for safety.

Lawyers said of the 16 suits by relatives still pending for trial, six of the plaintiffs sued in other cities and haven’t decided yet whether to transfer their cases to San Francisco. The other suits have been settled on confidential terms. Both Alaska and Boeing said they hope for more settlements before trial, which is scheduled to start July 7.

Boyle said plaintiffs’ lawyers believe Boeing’s decision not to dispute liability was a first for a major manufacturer in a large air accident. Noting that the MD-83 was designed 40 years ago and repeatedly certified by federal regulators, Boyle said Boeing’s action should send a message to the government and the airline industry.

“We hope the federal authorities take a long, hard look at this MD-83 plane,” Boyle said. “If the manufacturer is amendable to a judgment that It’s defectively designed, maybe airlines should be taking a second look about whether they should be flying those planes,” and other manufacturers will realize that federal approval won’t necessarily shield them from liability.

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