As Search For Debris Continues, Flight 370 Legal Action Begins

As Search For Debris Continues, Flight 370 Legal Action Begins

By W.J. Hennigan, Ralph Vartabedian and Don Lee, Los Angeles Times

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Calm seas returned Wednesday to aid the search for the missing Flight 370, but public protests and the first legal filing on behalf of a passenger hinted at a stormy forecast for Malaysia and its state-supported airline.

Executives of Malaysia Airlines said Tuesday that they would pay at least $5,000 to each of the families of the 227 passengers aboard the Boeing 777 that disappeared March 8, but the gesture appeared to provide little comfort to distraught relatives, about 100 of whom marched to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, where some clashed with police.

In the U.S., meanwhile, a law firm representing the father of a 24-year-old Indonesian passenger filed a petition for discovery against Boeing Co. and Malaysia Airlines, a legal move that is a precursor to what the firm said would be a “multimillion-dollar litigation process.”

“The big target would be Boeing because the families could sue in U.S. courts,” said Gary Logan, a Las Vegas attorney who handles aviation accident suits. “The U.S. is the place to be in terms of collecting damages.”

But any legal action against aircraft manufacturer Boeing would depend on finding the cause of the accident.

The company declined to comment. Malaysia Airlines didn’t reply to an inquiry.

The investigation has so far yielded no debris from the presumed crash zone in the southern Indian Ocean, much less any reason for the disappearance, which experts believe was caused by a hijacking, a suicidal crew member or a malfunction.

Malaysia Airlines might be forced to pay as much as $176,000 per passenger under the Montreal Convention of 1999, an international treaty that covers death and injury to passengers. A nearly $40-million payout would deliver a staggering blow to the carrier, which has been suffering financial losses for years.

Malaysia Airlines, a publicly traded company supported by the Malaysian government, lost $360 million last year, while airlines worldwide averaged an operating profit margin of about 4.7 percent, according to industry analysts.

“Malaysia Airlines was one of the biggest loss-making airlines, and that was before one of their aircraft mysteriously disappeared,” said Seth Kaplan, an analyst with Airline Weekly, an industry publication. “There weren’t many airlines — outside of India — that lost more money.”

Malaysian officials sought to allay rising anger in China and widespread doubt at home after they announced this week that an analysis of satellite data made it all but certain the flight had plunged into the south Indian Ocean with no hope for survivors.

The airliner’s chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said Malaysia Airlines was prepared to fly families to Australia, but noted that the Australian government would grant visas to relatives only if evidence of the plane were found.

Search operations resumed Wednesday after strong gales and heavy swells grounded aircraft and drove ships away. As many as a dozen aircraft from six countries, including the United States, will focus their efforts on unidentified debris spotted by satellites, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said a high-level delegation would return to Beijing to meet with families of the Chinese passengers.

Hishammuddin said during a Tuesday evening news conference that information from the British satellite firm Inmarsat strongly suggested that Flight 370 veered southward over the Indian Ocean, not northward, where search crews had also been looking. The data and graph he released also suggested that such a crash probably occurred between 8:11 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. March 8, more than seven hours after the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, en route to Beijing.

Airline chairman Mohamed Nor Yusof appealed to everyone Tuesday to “accept the painful reality that the aircraft is now lost and that none of the passengers or crew on board survived.”

A retired engineer who worked with Inmarsat’s spacecraft, built in El Segundo, California, by Boeing, expressed confidence in its ability to measure the minute shifts in transmission frequencies that formed the basis of the conclusion that the plane headed south. But other communications satellite engineers not involved with the spacecraft were skeptical about Inmarsat’s findings.

In its petition for discovery filed in Chicago’s Cook County Circuit Court, Ribbeck Law Chartered requests a wide range of information, including a manifest on any maintenance performed on the aircraft, information about its cargo and details about training of the airline’s crew. The firm represents the father of passenger Firman Chandra Siregar, and has been involved in several high-profile aviation cases.

Shen Bohan/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT

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