Missing Malaysian airliner lawsuits, if filed, face dismissal by American courts

The Associated Press

In this Saturday, April 12, 2014 photo, David Tang, a London-based lawyer working with U.K. firm Stewarts Law and an American firm, speaks during an interview at a hotel room in Beijing. Major disasters draw lawyers looking to sign up clients for big lawsuits, and the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with mostly Chinese passengers aboard has been no exception, with lawyers from various firms descending on a Beijing hotel where relatives have stayed, and even traveling around China to visit them in their homes. Tang was in Beijing this past weekend meeting Chinese relatives at a hotel where they have been staying. when they meet, he shows the relatives an information sheet describing how insurance payments for loss of life differ according to nationality. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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"America is the land of liability opportunity," said Professor Steve Dedmon, an aviation law expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona, Florida, campus. "We are very plaintiff friendly."

Some attorneys are already telling relatives they should consider suing Boeing, because it made the 777 plane. Boeing has declined to comment.

"As long as the possibility that the Boeing plane is related to the incident is not eliminated, there are no limitations on seeking compensation from Boeing," said Wang Guanhua, a Chinese-based lawyer working for Ribbeck Law Chartered, a Chicago firm.

Wang was speaking by phone from the eastern province of Zhejiang, where he had visited a number of relatives in their homes. His visits to family members have also taken him to four major Chinese cities. Wang said the relatives would best benefit from suing Boeing in the U.S. and that he believed they could get $6 million in damages for each passenger.

Ribbeck Law was criticized last month by a Cook County Circuit Court judge for filing a petition asking the court to order Malaysia Airlines and Boeing to turn over any documents related to the plane's disappearance. Judge Kathy Flanagan described the request as improper and threatened to impose sanctions if the firm tried a similar motion again.

Other attorneys have criticized the claims of multimillion-dollar settlements for foreign families as misleading. "Neither we nor any responsible lawyer would presently say that there is any case that can be brought in the United States," Justin Green, a partner at aviation accident law firm Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in New York, wrote in an email. "We will need the wreckage in order to establish a case against Boeing."

Another team of lawyers has argued that rather than take the litigious route in the U.S., the families are better off negotiating a settlement with Malaysia Airlines' insurers.

"We want a quicker settlement and a reasonable settlement," said David Tang, a London-based lawyer working with U.K. firm Stewarts Law and an American firm, who have teamed up and say they've been approached by family members for advice.

Tang was in Beijing this past weekend meeting with Chinese relatives at a hotel where they've been staying. He showed the relatives an information sheet describing how insurance payments for loss of life differ according to nationality.

"What we argue is that a Chinese life should not be worth less than an American's, or whatever," Tang said.

The legal team, if hired by the families, intends to demand more than $1.75 million for each passenger, James Healy-Pratt of Stewarts Law wrote in an email.

If Chinese families sued the Malaysian carrier in China, they could get around 1.5 million yuan ($250,000) per passenger, depending on their age, job, income and other factors, according to Beijing-based aviation lawyer Zhang Qihuai.

In Malaysia, a court would probably not stray too far from the $175,000 compensation limit set by the Montreal Convention, said Jeremy Joseph, a Malaysian aviation lawyer. "The judicial trend for awarding damages in Malaysia is very conservative. It is not the trend here for courts to issue massive awards in damages to the millions," he said.

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Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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