Families of people who died in two Boeing 737 MAX crashes have rights as crime victims under federal law and may continue to challenge last year’s settlement that spared the company from prosecution, a federal judge in Texas found.
Ruling in a challenge brought by the families, U.S. District Court Judge
in Fort Worth, Texas, said they have standing to question the January 2021 agreement with the Justice Department because
conduct before the crashes led to the tragedy. Boeing said in the settlement that two of its former employees misled federal air-safety regulators about how the MAX’s automated flight-control system worked.
“The Court finds that the tragic loss of life that resulted from the two airplane crashes was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Boeing’s conspiracy to defraud the United States,” Judge O’Connor wrote.
The families have complained that Justice Department officials didn’t confer with them before reaching the $2.5 billion deferred-prosecution agreement with Boeing. Attorney General
met with some of the families and prosecutors later apologized, but argued the families weren’t crime victims under U.S. law. Judge O’Connor’s ruling indicates the families should have been given earlier notice about the settlement.
Boeing and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The potential consequences for Boeing and the Justice Department aren’t clear. Judge O’Connor didn’t decide in Friday’s order whether the failure to consult the families means Boeing’s settlement can be reopened.
“The Department of Justice clearly violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by secretly negotiating an agreement that granted Boeing immunity from criminal prosecution,” Paul G. Cassell, the families’ attorney, said in a statement. “This decision sets the stage for a pivotal hearing, where we will present proposed remedies that will allow criminal prosecution to hold Boeing fully accountable.”
Michael Stumo, whose daughter died in the second 737 MAX crash, called Friday for the Justice Department to redo the criminal investigation of Boeing.
As part of the 2021 agreement, Boeing admitted that two of its employees had deceived U.S. air-safety regulators about pilot-training issues related to a 737 MAX flight-control system that accident investigators later blamed for sending two of the jets into fatal nosedives, in 2018 in Indonesia and in 2019 in Ethiopia.
While the plane maker was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., Boeing will avoid prosecution if it complies with all laws for a period of three years.
Judge O’Connor said in his ruling that the Federal Aviation Administration would have required more pilot training had the Boeing employees not lied to American regulators. Regulators in other countries routinely follow suit, he wrote.
“In sum, but for Boeing’s criminal conspiracy to defraud the FAA, 346 people would not have lost their lives in the crashes,” the judge wrote.
The crash families’ case has gained high-level political support. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) filed court papers in support of their case.
Separately, the Justice Department prosecuted one of the now-former Boeing employees, a chief technical pilot, but a jury acquitted him earlier this year of fraud charges. No other individuals have faced prosecution in relation to the accidents.
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