Judge Retains Jurisdiction In Bid To Move Trial To Japan
SEATTLE (AP) _ A judge ruled Friday that lawsuits against the Boeing Co. and Japan Air Lines stemming from the worst single-plane crash in history will be tried in the United States, thwarting a bid by the corporations to move the trial to Japan.
The question of liability for the Aug. 12, 1985, crash of a JAL Boeing 747 that killed 520 of the 524 people aboard will be determined in Washington state, ruled King County Superior Court Judge Gary Little.
″Once liability is out of the way, we will look at how damages would be decided in Japan and how they would be decided here, and then I will rule″ on where damages will be decided, he said.
The case could reach trial in about nine months, he said.
The ruling came in the lawsuits filed by families of 77 people who died when the jumbo jet smashed into a mountain southwest of Tokyo.
The Boeing Co. and JAL had argued before Little that Japan was the proper forum for the lawsuits, and that there would be great expense and delay to try the cases in Seattle.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, however, said the two corporate giants simply wanted to duck the issue of liability by closing ranks and cut their monetary losses by barring the litigants from American courts.
Contrary to what Boeing and JAL maintained, justice would be swifter in Washington’s court system and under a 1953 treaty between the two nations, Japanese have rights to the U.S. courts similar to Americans, the attorneys said.
″They must be treated exactly the same way as citizens of the United States,″ said Donald Madole, representing families of the 77 victims. Of those, 71 were Japanese.
He also said that while compensation is an issue, the claimants also wanted to determine liability in the case. Although Boeing and JAL have agreed to share responsibility for the crash and payment of damages, they have avoided accepting blame in court documents.
Also on Friday, a Japanese Transport Ministry official blamed faulty repairs done by Boeing workmen on the tail section of the airliner in 1978. Boeing has said the work on the rear bulkhead of the airplane was faulty, but it has not linked that with the accident.
The repairs were made after the airplane, used on domestic flights in Japan, was damaged when its rear area was scraped while landing at Osaka airport.
In arguing for holding the trial in Japan, Boeing attorney Keith Gerrard said the aircraft had been flown exclusively in Japan, the victims were mostly Japanese, the preponderance of evidence was in Japan and the investigation was done primarily by Japanese and was written in Japanese.
George Hopkins, representing JAL, agreed. He said of the 520 killed, 498 were Japanese.
Because neither JAL nor Boeing would contest liability, he said, reasons for the crash are irrelevant. ″The only issue involved is compensation,″ he said. ″This is a matter that has a 100 percent Japan national interest.″
But Gerald Sterns, representing Werner Gerke, a German engineer who was killed in the crash, said the real issue was the attempt by a U.S. manufacturer to bar foreign plaintiffs from U.S. courts. Allowing such practices, he said, would allow U.S. companies to treat foreigners with impunity.
″There is no machinery in Japanese courts to deal with cases of this magnitude,″ he said. Japanese courts do not have methods to get to the reasons for the airliner crash, he said, and the question of damages could last up to eight years.
Sterns said that by removing the case to Japan, Boeing and JAL would have been able to pay off as little as $75,000 per victim, because delays in the court system would force out-of-court settlements. In the United States, he said, the same case might be worth $500,000.