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Fri, Feb 23, 2001 - Page 2 News List

Attorney asks US court to hear SIA case

LIABILITY Lawyers contend Singapore Air's membership in the Star Alliance makes a US hearing possible for a lawsuit against the airline for last year's crash that killed 83 people


A lawyer has asked a US court to hear the liability case of an Australian woman injured on the Singapore Airlines jet that slammed into construction equipment and exploded during takeoff last year at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, killing 83 people.

Such a trial would traditionally be held in courts in Australia, Singapore or Taiwan because a US airline was not involved in the accident and the passenger's final destination was not the US.

But US lawyer Gerald Sterns argued in a legal complaint filed on Wednesday in US District Court in Oakland, California, that the court should hear the case because Singapore Airlines is a member of the 15-carrier Star Alliance consortium, which includes United Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa German Airlines and All Nippon Airways.

"If they [Singapore Airlines] want the benefits of the US market, they should be able to be sued there," the Oakland-based attorney said during a recent visit to Taipei.

Star Alliance members allow travelers to accumulate frequent flier miles on one another's flights and they employ a number of "code-sharing" arrangements that let one airline put its own flight number on another carrier's flight and sell some of the seats as its own.

The request for a trial names the Star Alliance, United Airlines and Singapore Airlines as defendants. The plaintiffs are Australians Helen Broadfoot and her husband, David, who was not on the plane but "incurred the loss of his wife's consortium," or companionship, due to her injuries, the complaint said.

Sterns acknowledged he wants to hold the trial in the US, where victims are traditionally awarded much higher compensation than in Singaporean, Taiwanese or Australian courts.

"The United States is the last place in the world Singapore Airlines wants to defend this claim," Sterns said.

Singapore Airlines has apologized for the crash and has offered payments of US$400,000 to relatives of people who died, while saying payments to those who survived would be worked out on a case-by-case basis.

The Los Angeles-bound Boeing 747-400 burst into flames after the pilot tried to take off on the wrong runway and plowed into construction equipment on Oct. 31.

Taiwan investigators have said they will release their report today.

This newspaper reported yesterday that poor communication in the cockpit caused the pilot to miss clear warnings that the plane was on the wrong runway.

Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council declined to comment on the report, based on two unidentified "aviation industry insiders."

Under the Warsaw Convention, an international agreement that sets guidelines for airline liability, a crash victim can sue the airline in the company's principle place of business, in the airline's home base, in the place the victim purchased the ticket or in the final destination of the victim's trip.

A conventional interpretation of the international agreement would not allow the Australians to sue Singapore Airlines in the US. The airline is not based in the US nor is it the company's principle place of business. Also, Australia was the victim's final destination.

Sterns said his Star Alliance argument might be a tough sell to some judges, but he said courts have been willing to hear such cases before because they fear foreign courts will not give a fair hearing.

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