When Lion Air’s Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane crashed minutes after taking off in Indonesia, killing all 189 people onboard, it was a tragedy. When a mere 5 months later in Ethiopia another Boeing 737 Max 8 jet crashed and killed 157 people, it signaled a disturbing trend. Now, justifiably so, Boeing 737 Max 8 jets are coming under scrutiny for various safety risks. With a number of lawsuits pending from both crashes, there are many unanswered questions concerning the safety of Boeing jets and whether the company will be held liable in United States Courts.
The Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Crashes
On October 29, 2018, 13 minutes after takeoff in Indonesia, a Lion Air flight carrying 189 people crashed into the sea. According to black box data, the aircraft’s automatic safety system caused the plane to nosedive. Only two minutes after takeoff, the plane’s pilots asked to return to the airport, citing a flight control problem. Indonesian investigators discovered that the jet’s angle-of-attack sensor was previously under maintenance at a Florida aerospace facility prior to the flight. The angle-of-attack sensor, in tandem with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, is designed to push the plane’s nose down if it detects a potential aerodynamic stall. Some sources have stated that the pilots of the Lion Air flight initially shut off the automated anti-stall system to control the plane with a manual wheel, but then turned the system back on. In response to the crash, Boeing said it expected to fix its software and change its system to rely on two sensors.
Whatever the problem, it did not appear to be fixed in time by Boeing. On March 10, 2019, the Ethiopian Air flight crashed under eerily similar circumstances. According to the black box data, this Boeing 737 crash was also caused by a faulty angle-of-attack sensor that erroneously activated the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The system pushed the front of the plane down, causing the deadly nosedive that killed the 157 people onboard. Changes made to the Boeing 737 Max 8 flight control system, due to a shift in engine placement, are suspected of contributing to both crashes.
Although investigations are still ongoing, the connections between the two crashes signify serious and potentially widespread problems within the Boeing 737’s automated systems. Two days after the Ethiopia Air crash, and hours after the Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory mandating certain design changes, Boeing announced it would update the flight control systems on its Boeing 737 Max 8 aircrafts. However, such software updates have not yet been released and the company has maintained that its planes are safe and do not pose any inherent safety risks.
Investigations are currently underway by multiple governmental agencies, including the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the Transportation Department, as well as the Justice Department.
After the first crash, a string of lawsuits were filed in U.S. courts on behalf of the Lion Air passengers alleging defects in Boeing’s sensors and control systems and the company was negligent in its designs. Recently, the family of a Rwandan passenger on the Ethiopian Air flight has filed a lawsuit against Boeing in Chicago federal court, alleging that Boeing defectively designed its automated flight control system. The lawsuit alleged that the Boeing 737 Max 8 jets were defectively designed, unreasonably dangerous, and provided inadequate warnings to the airlines. The lawsuits also allege that Boeing failed to adequately train pilots on how to use the automation system of the Boeing 737.
Families of the Ethiopian Air crash may have stronger legal claims, as the lawsuits hinge on Boeing’s actions after the Lion Air crash. If it can be proven that Boeing did nothing to effectively minimize the danger, or that they acted recklessly, substantial punitive damages are possible. While compensation would depend on the particularized circumstances of the victim, one legal expert opined that damages per victim can be between $1 million and $10 million.
Boeing, a Chicago-based company, has a history of successfully arguing in U.S. courts that air crash lawsuits should be dismissed in favor of the countries where the crashes occurred. Such dismissals avoid Boeing going before U.S. juries and facing the risk of substantial payouts associated with wrongful death and punitive damages. However, Boeing may not be able to dismiss the current lawsuits because plaintiffs (8 of which are U.S. citizens) can argue that Boeing’s system designs and safety decisions all occurred within the United States.
How Can The Experts Weigh In?
There will be no shortage of experts in the upcoming Boeing litigation. Air safety experts and aeronautical engineers will be critical in determining whether the planes’ sensors were defective and caused the deadly nosedives. Although angle-of-attack sensors are considered reliable, sensors can malfunction and fail, particularly if they have design flaws. In particular, engineers have criticized Boeing’s decision to allow a single sensor to activate the entire stalling system. As one aeronautical engineer and former Swedish Air Force fighter pilot, Bjorn Fehrm, frankly weighed in, the Boeing’s single angle-of-attack sensors is “not a good engineering system,” and the company “screwed up royally.”
Overall, the litigation against Boeing has just begun. As many experts have suggested, the close proximity between the two crashes signify a greater problem than simply an anomalous defect. As the litigation unfolds and the investigations continue, it is likely that Boeing will face more lawsuits in the near future.