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Ethiopia plane crash: Families reject Boeing's out-of-court offer

Friday July 5 2019

Lawyers Stephen Gachie and Irungu Kanga'ta

Lawyers Stephen Gachie and Irungu Kanga'ta, who are representing 15 Kenyan families of victims of the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines plane crash, address the media at the KICC in Nairobi on July 7, 2019. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

ELVIS ONDIEKI
By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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Lawyers representing 15 Kenyan families, whose relatives died in the March 10 plane crash in Ethiopia, announced on Friday that their clients had rejected a bid by the aeroplane manufacturer to settle their cases out of court.

Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata and Nairobi-based lawyer Stephen Gachie, whose respective law firms are in a consortium with two other firms in the US, said the families were in it for the long haul in cases filed in Chicago against Boeing.

Boeing is the manufacturer of the Ethiopian Airlines aeroplane that crashed and killed 157.

“We appeared before a judge on June 17 for a status conference. All lawyers representing various victims were present. During that status conference, the lawyer for Boeing made a settlement offer,” Mr Kang’ata told journalists in Nairobi on Friday.

“We sought instructions from our clients and so far, they have rejected negotiations out of court."

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The lawmaker noted that Boeing made a similar request during a second hearing on June 27, asking that the case should not proceed before the families consider its offer.

The judge, however, ruled that they can be negotiating with the next of kin as the case proceeds.

“We are happy with that ruling by the judge. We shall soon commence the disclosure processes — that is, parties exchanging various documents that they may be having. After that, a hearing date will be fixed by the court,” said Mr Kang’ata.

BOEING FUND

The lawyers also expressed scepticism over the $100 million (Sh10 billion) fund announced by Boeing on Wednesday for the benefit of victims of two accidents involving its 737 Max aeroplane.

One of the tragedies is the Ethiopian Airlines crash while the other involved a Lion Air plane in Indonesia, where 181 lives were lost in October 2018.

Boeing said the money will be released to the families through “local governments and non-profit organisations”.

It added that the cash will be given out in phases and that it will be for “family and community needs of those by the tragic accidents of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302”.

PERCEPTION

Mr Gachie said Boeing’s move could be an attempt to get a favourable perception from the jury that will hear the matter.

“One may argue that the idea by Boeing was meant to sway the minds of the jury that will be making a determination on the cases that have been filed in Chicago. They want to persuade the jury that ‘we are already remorseful’ so that it can be considerate to them,” said the advocate.

The lawyers advised families to accept any offers from Boeing, but not to be persuaded to withdraw a lawsuit against the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer.

“Ideally, what Boeing is doing is to apologise in a colourful manner, and any apology is acceptable. But any apology offered does not eliminate the need to seek reparations. So we will encourage the victims to take it as it comes but to nonetheless pursue their individual claims against the company,” Mr Gachie said.

HISTORIC CASE

The lawyers believe the case against Boeing will be historic once finalised because it will introduce changes in the way aeroplanes are made and released to the market.

“The case is of huge impact because it is going to change the history of the aviation industry. It is going to make people who make planes more responsible, so that whenever you are travelling, you don’t fear that maybe the manufacturer has something which is wrong,” said Mr Kang’ata.

Mr Gachie noted that much as the case filed in Chicago might take a while to be finalised, families should hang on because the reward is likely to be high.

“When you see an offer coming that you have not solicited for, and which attempts to create an impression that each family is entitled to about Sh28 million, it gives you an idea of what you’re looking for in the event that you fight,” he told journalists.

DOCUMENTS

At the moment, the lawyers are gathering death certificates, temporary letters of administration and other documents which they will later forward to the US court.

“The American legal system has the jury system element, meaning you have a judge whose work is to shepherd the legal processes, but ultimately the final verdict is rendered by the jury,” Mr Kang’ata explained.

Mr Kang’ata and Mr Gachie, in collaboration with the US law firms, are currently representing 15 families from Kenya and two from Ethiopia.

They said they are in talks with the kin of some Chinese nationals who died in the Ethiopia crash.