Boeing Sued by Family of American Killed in Ethiopia Crash

In this March 11, 2019, file photo, wreckage is piled at the crash scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight near Bishoftu, Ethiopia. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File)

CHICAGO (CN) – The parents of consumer activist Ralph Nader’s niece, who was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash last month, brought a federal lawsuit Thursday accusing Boeing of cutting corners on its design of the 737 Max aircraft and neglecting to tell airlines that pilots would need new training to fly it.

Samya Stumo, a 24-year-old grand-niece of Nader, a consumer advocate and former presidential candidate, was a passenger on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 when it crashed on March 10, six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.

The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8, the same kind of plane involved in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash that occurred five months prior in Indonesia and killed 189 people.

Following the Lion Air crash, safety experts accused Boeing of withholding information about a new feature of the plane’s computer, which automatically responds when the aircraft is in a stall by lowering the plane’s nose.

Aviation experts told the Wall Street Journal that this feature, intended to help pilots avoid accidentally raising a plane’s nose too high, “under unusual conditions can push it down unexpectedly and so strongly that flight crews can’t pull it back up.”

The Ethiopian Airlines crash seems to have been caused by the same issue – the plane’s computer system appeared to override pilot directions due to a malfunction of the stall-prevention systems.

Ethiopian investigators said Thursday that the doomed plane’s pilots repeatedly following procedures recommended by Boeing in the wake of the Lion Air crash, but were still unable to save the plane.

Stumo’s parents, Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron – represented by Robert Clifford in Chicag, and Frank Pitre of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, California – filed their lawsuit in Chicago federal court on Thursday against Boeing and Ethiopian Airlines.

They assert that Boeing “put profits over safety,” resulting in their daughter’s death.

“Boeing installed the defective flight control system suspected to be the cause of both crashes to address changes in the aircraft’s handling caused by the 737 MAX aircraft’s larger and more fuel-efficient engines,” the 55-page complaint states. “Both the design changes boosting fuel efficiency and the unsafe way in which Boeing designed and certified the flight control system were tools to make the 737 MAX aircraft more competitive against rivals like the Airbus A320, which would in turn increase Boeing’s sales and profits.”

Stumo’s parents accuse the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration of failing in its duty to adequately inspect the 737 Max before certifying it as air-safe.

The FAA, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit, allegedly relied heavily on Boeing’s own technicians to inspect the safety of the aircraft, and, due to Boeing’s significant lobbying efforts, “FAA managers in some instances would sign off on documents themselves without waiting for the FAA technical staff to complete their review.”

The Max series of planes is Boeing’s newest and top-selling jet, and one of the main selling points of the aircraft was that its controls were so similar to the old 737 jets that pilots did not need retraining.

According to the complaint, pilots familiar with the 737NG aircraft received just 56 minutes of training on an iPad before flying a 737 Max, and the training never mentioned the automated flight-control system implicated in these two crashes.

Many countries have now grounded the 737 Max planes, including the United States. President Donald Trump issued an emergency order last month grounding Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft, overruling an FAA decision not to ground the planes following the Lion Air crash.

“Sadly, these two entirely preventable airline crashes demonstrate that the FAA is ill-equipped to oversee the aerospace industry and will downplay serious hazards and safety risks to the public rather than sound the alarm about safety concerns, problems, issues and hazards that pose substantial, probable, and/or foreseeable risks to human life,” Stumo’s parents say. “Boeing, and the regulators that enabled it, must be held accountable for their reckless actions.”

One of the parents’ attorneys, Pitre, said in a statement, “This case is a symptom of a larger epidemic where regulatory agencies lack the resources to carry out their obligations, leaving compliance with safety regulations to the whims of corporate executives eager to circumvent safety standards in order to gain a competitive advantage. Simply put, the watchdog can’t do his job, so he just gives the fox the keys to the henhouse to count eggs.” 

Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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