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Victims’ Families Sue Singapore Airlines

By Michael W. Potts
Special to India-West

LOS ANGELES – A lawsuit was filed against Singapore Airlines Feb. 23 in U.S. District Court here on behalf of family members of seven passengers, four of them Indian Americans, who died in the Oct. 31 crash of Flight 006 as it was leaving Taiwan during what has been described as typhoon-like conditions.

Holding up a picture of Janardhan Volam, his son Akash and wife Neelima Vuppala (her maiden name), attorney Brian Panish declared at a press conference outside the courthouse that “this is another case of a large corporation putting profits over safety and not considering the lives of people that were customers of the airline and what this has done to their families.”

In addition to Buchilingam Volam, Suvarnam Volam and the Vuppala family – survivors of Janardhan Volam, Akash and Neelima – Panish is also representing the Marallapudi family whose infant child Surya Narayana was among those who died in the crash that killed 82 of the 179 people aboard the plane.

“We intend by filing this lawsuit to try to make a difference in air safety and to stop airlines that continue to push schedules, to push pilots, (and make them) think twice about jeopardizing the lives of their passengers in a flight such as this,” Panish told a small gathering of news camera crews from local networks.

Reserving his strongest criticisms for the way Singapore Airlines had treated the surviving members of the Indian American families he was representing, Panish told India-West immediately following the press conference: “The way that the airline has been dealing with the Indian families is very underhanded,” charging that, “They have been trying to evoke some obscure provision of Indian law and only offered compensation to the families of the males, and they totally shunned the families of any females that have deceased in this airline.”

According to Luv Bakhshi, an investigator with Panish’s law firm, the “obscure provision” Singapore Airlines has been seeking to invoke is the Hindu Law of Succession of 1956.

Singapore Airline spokesmen, whom Panish did not identify, have allegedly “made comments and actions indicating that the value of the Indian life is less than the value of others, and were very outraged by that,” he said. “We intend to prove that an Indian life is just as valuable as any other life, and that it’s very invaluable, in fact,” he added.

In a press-release to India-West, Panish stated that on October 31 of last year, “despite typhoon conditions, Singapore Airlines allowed Flight 006 to depart from Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport from a runway under repair, rather than face costly schedule delays.”

As the Boeing 747 jet proceeded down a closed runway and prepared for take off, “a series of jarring crashing with the concrete barriers and heavy crane trucks ensued,” the press release went on to state. “Survivors described the terror as the overhead compartments and the ceiling collapsed and they attempted to escape a cabin engulfed in flames and smoke.”

At the press conference, Panish stated that his firm will be seeking “monetary damages of an unspecified amount,” that include claims for mental anguish, terror, fear of death and severe physical injuries suffered by victims.

“The pressure on the pilots to stay on time, along with inadequate warning, lighting and safety measures on the runway proved to be a lethal combination,” said Panish, who in 1999 won a $4.9 billion lawsuit (later reduced to $1.2 Billion) against the General Motors Corporation because of a design fault in the 1979 Chevy Malibu.

“This tragedy never needed to occur,” he told the news media. “There is no way that this plane should ever have been taking off and there is no way that these (family members) should be suffering the tremendous loss that they have suffered.”

In a copy of the lawsuit made available to India-West, Dr. Cheong Choon Kong, deputy chairman and CEO of Singapore Airlines, is said to have issued a public statement “confirming that the pilot of Flight SQ006 had used the wrong runway.”

The lawsuit further contends that the airline executive “accepted responsibility for the harm caused by Singapore Airlines, stating: ‘They are our pilots. That was our aircraft. The aircraft should not be on that runway. We accept full responsibility’.”

Singapore Airlines announced in November that it would offer the victims’ families $400,000 each, plus $25,000 for immediate needs. Although James Boyd, a spokesman for the airlines, reportedly stated that the “company stands behind these offers,” Panish told India-West “that was merely a publicity stunt.”

According to Panish, “they have not made any written offers to any of our clients,” he said, although he did acknowledge that Singapore Airlines did tell the media they were willing to pay such a sum, “but they never told any of our clients that and that’s never been communicated to anyone.”

In order to substantiate Panish’s allegations, India-West later contacted Singapore Airlines spokesman James Boyd at the corporation’s main office in Los Angeles. Boyd, however declines to make any statement, citing the company’s policy not to comment on impending or ongoing litigation.

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