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Victim’s Family Sues Boeing Over Ethiopian Airlines Crash

By Emily Field

Law360 (March 28, 2019, 7:48 PM EDT) — The children of a man who died in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash hit Boeing with a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday that appears to be the first suit filed over the March 10 disaster.

In the suit filed in Illinois federal court, the family of Rwandan citizen Jackson Musoni says the flight stabilization system in the Boeing 737 MAX 8, now grounded worldwide, is defectively designed and leaves pilots unable to regain control when the automatic flight control system pushes the plane into a dive.

The family also says that technical experts with the Federal Aviation Administration were pressed by higher-ups during the aircraft’s certification process to delegate more authority to Boeing, which was under pressure to bring the jet to the market as it competed with a European rival.

Steven Marks of Podhurst Orseck PA, counsel for the family, told Law360 Thursday he believes the suit is the first to be filed over the crash that killed 157 people.

The FAA’s approval of the MAX 8 has come under intense scrutiny recently after the crash earlier this month, as well as the Lion Air Flight 610 crash in the Java Sea that killed 189 in October.

Senators at a Wednesday hearing criticized the agency’s Organization Designation Authorization program, which outsources certain parts of the certification process. One lawmaker said the FAA put the fox in charge of the hen house.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also reportedly launched a criminal probe into the development and federal approval of the Boeing 737 MAX jets, while the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General has initiated an audit of FAA’s certification of the aircraft.

“The real question in this case is how did the 737 obtain a supplemental or amended type certificate when there were substantial changes to the air frame and the engines and the aerodynamic operation of the aircraft?” Marks said.

Musoni’s family said Boeing’s safety analysis understated the power of the MAX 8’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, an automated feature that’s part of the plane’s anti-stall system. The system was added after Boeing redesigned the 737’s platform for the MAX, according to the suit.

But Boeing didn’t tell pilots about the system or that it might cause the plane to pitch down or force it into a cycle of dives, the family said. The company also didn’t tell pilots how to handle the plane when the MCAS forces repeated dives, according to the suit.

The family’s suit also cites complaints filed in a federal database by pilots voicing safety concerns about the planes, including one that said it was “unconscionable that Boeing and the FAA allowed pilots to fly the planes without adequate training or fully disclosing how the systems differed from previous 737 models.”

Boeing on Wednesday said it’s almost finished with a software update for the MCAS feature and it has met with more than 200 airline pilots, technical leaders and government regulators to review and demonstrate the update.

A Boeing spokesman told Law360 the company couldn’t comment on the suit.

“We offer our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. Boeing continues to support the investigation, and is working with the authorities to evaluate new information as it becomes available,” the spokesman said.

Counsel information for Boeing wasn’t immediately available on Thursday.

The family is represented by Steven Marks of Podhurst Orseck PA, and Andrew T. Hays and Sarah Buck of Hays Firm LLC.

The case is Debets v. Boeing Co., case number 1:19-cv-02170 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

–Additional reporting by Linda Chiem. Editing by Amy Rowe.