Even if attacked, airline could be liable in crash; case in point Malaysia Airlines

Aug 27 2014, 11:03 IST
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Since the early days of commercial aviation, international agreements have governed compensation for crash victims. (Reuters) Since the early days of commercial aviation, international agreements have governed compensation for crash victims. (Reuters)
SummaryFamilies of passengers who were on the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down over Ukraine...

Families of passengers who were on the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down over Ukraine are starting to sort through the long process of gaining compensation for their loss.

Officials in the Netherlands, where the majority of Flight 17 victims lived, say that Malaysia Airlines has been making $50,000 payments to the families without admitting any wrongdoing in the crash.

Such payments may create goodwill, lawyers say, but they are not likely to discourage some families from seeking more than the amount promised under an international treaty - about $174,000.

Since the early days of commercial aviation, international agreements have governed compensation for crash victims. It is a no-fault system - the airline pays a standard compensation even if is blameless. Under a treaty called the Montreal Convention, families can sue for more if the airline or another party was negligent.

Aviation-accident lawyers say it would be almost impossible to collect damages from Russia or the pro-Russian rebels accused of shooting down the plane with a far-reaching surface-to-air missile. Malaysia Airlines will be left as the prime - maybe the only - defendant, and lawsuits are likely to hinge on the plane's planned route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17.

Malaysian officials have said that the route over eastern Ukraine was deemed safe by international aviation authorities as long as the plane flew higher than 32,000 feet - below that, Ukraine had closed the airspace, presumably because of the threat posed by pro-Russia rebels armed with shoulder-held anti-aircraft guns, which have a limited range. While the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had prohibited flights over the Crimean Peninsula, the U.S. ban did not extend to eastern Ukraine until after the shoot-down.

And, Malaysian officials have noted, other airlines continued to fly the same route, even on the day that Flight 17 was shot down.

But some aviation lawyers say that the families could have a strong case by arguing that Malaysia Airlines should have stopped flying over eastern Ukraine after the rebels shot down military jets earlier in July.

''The idea that somebody else was equally as stupid as they were is not that good of an argument,'' said Jonathan Reiter, a New York personal-injury lawyer who has handled many aviation cases.

Families of those on this year's major air crashes - Flight 17; Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared as it flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing; the crash of TransAsia Airways Flight

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