Boeing is in talks with the relatives of people who died in the first of two fatal crashes by its 737 Max jets, to explore settling their cases out of court.
The company confirmed to Business Insider that it had “agreed to work together” with bereaved families explore the idea of keeping the cases out of court.
Ending the lawsuits without a trial would be in Boeing’s interest, multiple lawyers told Business Insider, because it would avoid a potentially damaging spectacle of Boeing’s conduct around the crash being put under the spotlight and prevent a deeper dive into how the company designed, made, and communicated about the plane.
In a statement to Business Insider, Boeing said:
“Boeing and the claimants in the Lion Air Flight 610 cases have agreed to work together to explore early settlement of these claims, so that those affected can receive compensation without the need for prolonged litigation.”
The Lion Air crash killed 189 in Indonesia in October 2018 when the plane crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off.
Settling would let Boeing put the crashes behind them “and start focusing on the other things that need to be done,” Brian Kabateck, an attorney representing 14 Lion Air families suing Boeing, told Business Insider.
Boeing is facing lawsuits from families around the world over the Lion Air crash, and also the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max plane in March, in which all 157 people on board died.
Kabateck told Business Insider that he is “going to see in July how serious they are about their reported interest in trying to resolve cases.”
“It’s in the best interest of my clients to explore it at least for an additional month or so to see how serious they are,” he said.
Kabateck previously told Business Insider that he was also interested in settling out of court, so that his clients “are able to put this behind them as quickly as possible.”
“The litigation always tends to spawn an emotional response, understandably, from the families, and this case is certainly no different, of course compounded by the fact that it’s been so public,” he said.
He said that many of the people on the plane were on their way to work, and were the main earner in their families. “That’s a significant issue,” he said.
Kabateck said that settling with families could be the “best” move for Boeing, as it would prevent lawyers from making arguments in court based on how the plane was designed, made, and certified.
It would also avoid the possibility of the trial dominating how Boeing is covered by the news media. “If every single week there’s stories about the lawsuits and the trials and the families, that’s bad for business,” Kabateck said.
“It would be the smartest thing Boeing could possibly do, to put these cases behind them.”
Matt Clarke, an aviation attorney not involved the cases, told Business Insider that Boeing may be motivated in “pushing for early settlements” so that lawyers “don’t really do a deep dive into everything that Boeing knew and what all the problems are with the aircraft.”
He said that settling could mean less scrutiny is put on the company and the plane: “I’m afraid there’s not going to be enough eyes looking closely enough at whether they really have fixed the underlying problems with the aircraft.”
However, there could be more at play than avoiding scrutiny for Boeing and a painful trial for families.
Velvet glove, iron fist
Kabateck also said that the settlement could also part of a wider strategy to move the cases from the US to Indonesia, where the legal situation is very likely to favor Boeing.
Attorneys for Boeing indicated in federal court in March that it would formally ask to have the cases heard in Indonesia, rather than in US federal court in Chicago. And while Boeing is not currently prioritizing this strategy, lawyers say it could still be in play.
Compensation for the families would be much lower in Indonesia, as well as in Ethiopia, where Boeing could seek to move the cases from the second crash.
Mike Danko, an aviation attorney and pilot, told Business Insider: If Boeing can get the cases sent back to either Indonesia or Ethiopia those cases really become worthless.”
Boeing did not answer when asked by Business Insider if it would still pursue this strategy, but other lawyers representing families in both crashes told Business Insider that they would resist such a move.
Kabateck said that he was still preparing to oppose any effort to move the cases. He told Business Insider that the attempt to shift jurisdiction could be part of a strategy to “drive down the settlement value of the case based on the threat.”
Danko said that in similar cases, the parties often meet to find a “reasonable settlement” partway between what they might get in the US compared to the other country.
Boeing did not answer Business Insider’s question on whether it was using this strategy.
In a second statement it said: “Boeing extends our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families and loved ones of those onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610.
It said: “As the investigations continue, Boeing is cooperating fully with the investigating authorities.”