Alaska Airlines lawyers seek private meeting with judge

Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2001

SEATTLE (AP) -- Alaska Airlines' lawyers are seeking a private meeting with a federal judge to discuss settlements of lawsuits over the crash of Alaska Flight 261, a move opposed by plaintiffs and a co-defendant.

Lawyers for relatives of the 88 people who died in the crash have written that the request could threaten the impartiality of U.S. District Judge Charles Legge, who is presiding over the case in San Francisco.

Their letter to Legge accused the West Coast carrier's lead lawyer, Mark Dombroff, of using judge-softening tactics he described in a book. Dombroff did not respond to telephone calls for comment Monday, The Seattle Times reported.

Lawyers for a company which built a part that has been a focus of the crash investigation wrote that the airline is seeking ''protections and advantages'' beyond what the law provides.

The request was made as Legge prepares to make key rulings on the wrongful-death claims, including whether survivors of the crash victims may seek punitive damages. He has not responded to the request.

More than 80 lawsuits by relatives are pending. Five of the passengers were from Alaska. The MD-83 went down Jan. 31, 2000, off Port Hueneme, Calif.

Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans would not comment specifically, saying only, ''Our goal is to provide fair and equitable settlements to each of the families as soon as reasonably possible.''

In his request to Legge on March 16, Dombroff said the company wants to make settlement offers ''promptly'' but has been unable to gain agreement on the proposal from Trigg Aerospace of Santa Ana, Calif., and Shell Oil.

The fourth defendant, the Boeing Co., which holds liability for design of the aircraft, has accepted those terms. Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, which made the plane, in 1997.

Dombroff wrote that Alaska is ready to pay full compensatory damages, an offer first made in September, as long as the company can later seek damages from other co-defendants.

Trigg acquired a company that built the jackscrew that controls the up and down movement of the horizontal stabilizer on the tail of the plane. Shell's grease was used on the jackscrew, which has been at the center of the crash probe.

Alaska Airlines is ''the culpable party in this tragedy,'' Trigg's lawyer, Martin Rose, wrote the judge on March 19. ''The airline's tactic in this case is not unique, and my clients are not interested in being a party to it.''

In a letter the next day, the plaintiffs' lawyers wrote that the airline's request violates the spirit, if not the letter, of a court rule that bars attorneys from writing letters to a judge on a pending matter.

Jamie Lebovitz of Cleveland, a lawyer on the plaintiffs' steering committee, noted that Dombroff wrote in a book, ''The device of using the judge as a settlement judge prior to trial is an excellent way of less formally educating him or her to your case.''

Dombroff's book, Lebovitz said, also refers to agreements among defendants that preserve their rights against one another.

''Alaska's seemingly 'generous' offer to compensate the plaintiffs on behalf of all defendants was dependent on full cooperation of all defendants,'' Lebovitz said.

''Yet now it is clear that such cooperation does not and never will exist, as some of the defendants are simply not interested in capitulating to Alaska's terms for eliciting that cooperation.''

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