Boeing To Face Criminal Charges Related to Max Crashes

 - January 20, 2023, 8:10 AM
A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 approaches Jakarta in September 2018. The crash of another Lion Air Max on October 29, 2018, claimed the lives of 189 people. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

A Texas federal judge has ruled that Boeing must appear in court on January 26 for arraignment on federal criminal charges related to the twin crashes of 737 Max jets that claimed the lives of 346 people. Initially, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) granted Boeing immunity from criminal prosecution as part of a $2.5 billion settlement reached in January 2021. However, the lawyers for the victims’ families argued that they should have been allowed to participate in the case under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and the judge agreed, ruling in favor of the victims last October.

The crashes in 2018 and 2019 in Indonesia and Ethiopia led to a 20-month grounding of the 737 Max and prompted the U.S. Congress to pass legislation reforming airplane certification.

The Clifford Law Office, which represents the victims in a separate civil suit, called the arraignment a rare occurrence in the history of U.S. aviation law.  “The families appreciate the judge’s ruling that Boeing will be treated like every other defendant in federal criminal cases and arraigned,” said Paul Cassell, the lawyer representing the victims in the criminal case. “Some family members are making plans to travel to Texas next week to address the company criminally responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.”

Under the terms of the January 2021 deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ, Boeing had to pay a criminal monetary penalty of $243.6 million and compensation payments to its 737 Max airline customers of $1.77 billion. It also agreed to establish a $500 million crash-victim beneficiaries fund to compensate the heirs, relatives, and legal beneficiaries of the 346 passengers who died in the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

Boeing admitted in court documents filed in the Northern District of Texas that two of its 737 Max flight technical pilots deceived the FAA Aircraft Evaluation Group (FAA AEG) about the airplane’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), a malfunction of which investigators found led to both the crashes. According to the DOJ, in and around November 2016, Boeing’s then-737 Max chief technical pilot and another pilot who would later assume that role discovered information about an expansion of the MCAS’s operating range. Rather than sharing information about the change with the FAA AEG, Boeing—through the technical pilots—concealed the information and deceived the FAA AEG about MCAS, said the DOJ. As a result, the FAA AEG deleted all information about MCAS from the final version of the 737 Max Flight Standardization Board Report published in July 2017. In turn, airplane manuals and pilot training materials for U.S.-based airlines lacked information about the MCAS.