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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Split Forum in Nigerian Plane Disaster

MIAMI (CN) - American families of people killed when a jet crash-landed in Nigeria in 2012 can continue their lawsuit against the pilot's estate in Florida, but foreign-born families must try their lawsuits in Nigeria, a federal judge ruled.

"This is a complex, mass-tort case that will contribute significantly to this court's already crowded docket," U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola wrote. "And even if liability can be determined through one trial, there will need to be multiple trials on damages. ... The burden on the jury-serving public of South Florida will be significant."

Dana Airlines crash-landed at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Nigeria in June 2012, killing 153 on board and 10 on the ground. The flight was traveling from Abuja, Nigeria, to Lagos.

Christina Onita-Olojo, of Missouri City, Texas, is the lead plaintiff of class action filed on behalf of her daughters, who were traveling to Nigeria for a wedding. The class was to consist of those Americans, but includes people born or living in Nigeria.

The plaintiffs must to be separated by origin of birth, Scola wrote.

"(T)his court finds that Nigeria is the more appropriate and convenient form for this case to proceed with respect to the foreign plaintiffs; and that the United States is the more appropriate and convenient forum for this case to proceed with respect to the United States plaintiffs," Scola wrote.

Plaintiffs had argued that the case should be tried in the United States because Nigerian courts are "corrupt," and that the country is "unsafe," but "similar travel warnings from the State Department were in effect at the time of the accident and every decedent in this case either lived in Nigeria, or voluntarily traveled to Nigeria and nearly all were actively traveling within the country when this accident occurred," Scola wrote.

He added: "In any event, these arguments are unpersuasive because none of the safety concerns specifically relate to this case or the individuals involved in this litigation."

To make their case that the courts in Nigeria are corrupt, plaintiffs retained a retired justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court as their expert. But doing so "undermines this argument," the judge wrote.

"Regardless, these are exactly the types of 'generalized, anecdotal complaints of corruption' that are insufficient to declare that a country cannot serve as an adequate forum,'" Scola wrote.

He added that Nigerian plaintiffs will be "unfairly prejudiced" if their case continues in an American court because "this court cannot compel non-party witnesses in Nigeria to produce documents or to provide testimony."

"This unfairness is magnified because the plaintiffs will be able to use documents and testimony provided by cooperative witnesses in Nigeria, but Sellers will not be able to compel evidence from uncooperative witnesses," Scola wrote.

In the end, "Nigeria clearly has a more compelling interest than the United States in resolving these lawsuits, since this accident is among one of the worst aviation disasters in the country's recent history."

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