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Families of 737 Max crash victims want DOJ to rescind Boeing's settlement agreement


The aerospace company Boeing admitted to criminal misconduct for misleading regulators after two of its 737 MAX airplanes crashed. Despite that, the Justice Department says that the families of those killed are not victims of a crime. Federal prosecutors are making that argument in response to an effort by the families to rescind this deal that gives Boeing and its executives immunity from criminal prosecution. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: On the morning of March 10, 2019, Mick Ryan, an official with the United Nations World Food Programme, boarded Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 bound for Nairobi. His wife, Naoise, was back home with their 3-year-old and 6-month-old.

NAOISE RYAN: That morning, my two kids had crawled into the bed beside me, and we sent a little message to him, you know, just saying - picture of the kids and saying, good morning, Daddy. But the message had sent and wasn't delivered.

SCHAPER: The message wasn't received because Mick was a passenger on the second of two 737 MAX airplanes to crash in less than five months' time, killing a total of 346 people. Crash investigators say a new automated flight control system played a significant role in causing both crashes. And investigations found that Boeing and key company employees deceived the FAA about that flawed system when the plane was certified. A Justice Department probe resulted in a charge of criminal conspiracy to defraud the FAA against Boeing. But the DOJ entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, with Boeing admitting to criminal misconduct for misleading regulators but not pleading guilty to the charge. As part of the settlement, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion, with most of it going to the airlines. And if the company lives up to the terms, Boeing and its top executives will be immune from further criminal prosecution.

RYAN: It was like a whole new wound had been inflicted on us.

SCHAPER: Again, Naiose Ryan.

RYAN: It was a sweetheart deal. It wasn't justice. And by giving this immunity, basically the decision-makers have not been held to account.

SCHAPER: So Ryan and other victims' families filed a motion in federal court in Texas, where the case is being heard, to rescind the deferred prosecution agreement. They argue they were not consulted prior to the deal. Their attorney is University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell.

PAUL CASSELL: I think it's quite clear that the Justice Department violated the Crime Victims Rights Act and violated Internal Justice Department policy, which requires conferring with crime victims. That wasn't done here.

SCHAPER: In their court filing, federal prosecutors apologized for not meeting with these crash victims' families before entering into the Boeing agreement. But the Justice Department says that the families are not crime victims under federal law; the FAA is. There was no doubt that Boeing had conspired to defraud the federal government when it deceived the FAA, the prosecutors wrote, before adding that the government's investigation, however, did not produce evidence that it believed would allow it to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what factors had caused the two fatal plane crashes.

CASSELL: So what the government is saying is that the only victims in this case were FAA bureaucrats.

SCHAPER: Attorney Paul Cassell calls the government's position outrageous and morally unconscionable.

CASSELL: Our reply is going to make very clear that Boeing's crimes of lying to the FAA directly led to the crashes of these two flights and killed 346 people.

SCHAPER: The Justice Department would not comment further beyond its detailed court filing. A spokeswoman for Boeing declined to comment on the litigation as well. Meanwhile, additional responses in the case are due in federal court today. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARK AND THE SURREALIST'S "KALEIDO_") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 11, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier headline mistakenly said Boeing had an immunity deal. In fact, it has a settlement agreement.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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