SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that an international treaty prevents families of the victims of the Alaska Airlines crash off California from recovering punitive damages from the airline.
It was a major setback for families of the 88 people aboard the MD-83 that crashed Jan. 31, 2000.
U.S. District Judge Charles Legge ruled that the Warsaw Convention does not allow air disaster victims to recover punitive damages.
No United States appeals court has allowed such a punitive damages claim. That means the victims probably cannot litigate the airline's liability for the crash.
Under the convention and other treaties, the victims' families are awarded $140,000 plus lost wages and non-economic damages that include loss of consortium and loss of companionship. Punitive damages could have ended up in the billions.
The judge did say he may allow the victims' families to seek damages for injuries their loved ones apparently suffered while the plane was careening through the air before it crashed into the ocean.
Alaska Air, which declined comment late Tuesday, has said it wants to settle the lawsuits.
''We would like to settle for 100 percent of the claims,'' the carrier's attorney, Mark Dombroff, has said.
As required under the Warsaw Convention Treaty, Alaska has already paid the $140,000 to most of the victims' families, company spokesman Jack Evans has said.
The decision effectively means determination of the cause of the air disaster may be left in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Attorneys for the victims say, however, that they could still pursue punitive damages from Boeing Co., which acquired the maker of the plane, McDonnell-Douglas Corp., in 1997. The lawyers say the airliner was negligently designed and manufactured.
''It's our intention to fully pursue this,'' said attorney Frank Pitre.
Plaintiffs' attorneys were hoping to have a forum to demonstrate that the carrier was negligent for allowing the plane to take off, New York attorney Francis Fleming has said.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not completed its investigation of the crash, and has not formally determined a cause. The investigation has focused on mechanics' decision not to replace a part that was wearing out in 1997 and is suspected of causing last January's disaster.
The plane's jackscrew assembly had been tested repeatedly by a maintenance crew in Oakland and found to be nearly worn out, but was put back into service after a second crew retested it a few days later, according to airline records and federal officials.
Just before the crash, the pilots reported problems with the Boeing MD-83's horizontal stabilizer, a flap on the tail that is tilted by the jackscrew assembly to control the pitch of the aircraft.
Nearly all the victims are represented in the suit.
The case is In re Air Crash off Point Mugu, MDL-00-1343.
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