US Lawyers Sue Boeing for Brazil’s Worst Air Tragedy Ever

A Brazilian woman whose husband and son were among the 154 victims who died in the September 29 Boeing collision over the Amazon jungle is expected to file today, November 6, in a Chicago court, a lawsuit against Boeing, Honeywell and ExcelAire.

Honeywell is the manufacturer of the Boeing’s and the small jet’s Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), which should have prevented the mid-air collision. ExcelAire is the New-York based air-taxi company that owns the Legacy jet that hit the Boeing 737-800.

While there were no survivors in the Boeing, all seven passengers – six Americans and one Brazilian – were survivors in the Legacy. 

The initiative to hire two American lawyers came from Suelen de Abreu Lleras, 22, the wife of adman Mário André Leite Lleras, 25, and mother of five-year-old Daniel de Abreu Lleras, both killed in the accident.

"Nothing will bring my son and my husband back, but someone has to take the blame for what occurred," says Suelen, the odontology student who lives in Manaus, capital of Amazonas state.

Manuel von Ribbeck and his colleague Mike Edison, the two lawyers retained by Lleras say their office will end up representing more than 20 Brazilian families. Ribbeck told reporters that they are acting fast while they can have access to documents that might soon be destroyed by those involved in the tragedy.

The lawyers intend to simulate the shock between the two planes in a computer. They told their Brazilian clients that the US legislation doesn’t require that the official investigations end before a lawsuit can be filed in an American court.

Ribbeck and Edison will soon start a parallel probe into the causes of the accident. The Yankee lawyers are being helped by Max Vemij, a Canadian who was an employee with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the same independent agency that is examining the Boeing’s and the Legacy’s black boxes for the Brazilian authorities. Vemij, who is in Manaus, will travel this week to São Paulo.

"We will use all the available data, from the content of both planes’ black boxes to satellite records," says Ribbeck. For him, the transcripts of the Legacy’s cockpit voice recorder are as fundamental as Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Palladino’s testimonies. They are the two pilots, who despite the collision with the Boeing, were able to land safely in a remote Brazilian air base in Serra do Cachimbo, Pará state.

"If we can prove, for example, that the anti-collision alarm didn’t  go off before the accident it will be easier to make the case that the TCAS manufacturer is also responsible for the tragedy," adds
Ribbeck.

The Brazilian Air Traffic Control is not being sued at this time, he observes, but this could change in the course of the investigations.

The Brazilian authorities have been conducting their own investigation but mostly in secrecy. Very little from it has been leaked to the press. One such leak occurred last week when Brazilian journalists got ahold of the Legacy’s voice recorder transcripts in which air traffic controllers in São José dos Campos – hometown of Embraer, the Legacy’s manufacturer – are heard telling the small jet pilots to fly at 37,000 feet through Manaus. At the same altitude and coming in the opposite direction was the Boeing 737-800.

All international treaties of which Brazil is signatory forbid the utilization in court of official reports on aeronautical accidents. Organizations around the world dealing with flight safety seem unanimous in maintaining that the sole aim of investigations is to point errors so they are not repeated.

Last month, the Flight Safety Foundation, an international organization based in France, reprimanded Brazil for criminalizing an aviation accident.

In a joint resolution they wrote that the Brazilian law enforcement authorities had "opened a criminal investigation and threatened involuntary manslaughter charges and interrogated pilots, while a magistrate revoked the pilots’ passports."

The Foundation concluded that "the paramount consideration in an aviation accident investigation should be to determine the probable cause of and contributing factors in the accident, not to punish criminally flight crews, … or traffic controllers."

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