Boeing Crash Victims’ Families Seek to Share Evidence With DOJ

U.S. Justice Department officials will meet Wednesday with families of Boeing Co. 737 Max crash victims even as they investigate the company’s operations in the wake of the recent near-catastrophic blowout of a fuselage panel mid-flight.

The department has a July deadline to determine whether Boeing violated a deferred-prosecution agreement put in place after 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. The review now includes looking at problems related to the blowout on an Alaska Airlines flight on Jan. 5. If Boeing violated the agreement, the company could face criminal charges.

The families have attempted to share a trove of information they’ve obtained through civil litigation against the company, including about 200 depositions and millions of documents. They say the information might help in the US criminal probe into the blowout or in deciding whether to tear up the earlier agreement, but their efforts have been thwarted by Boeing and the courts after a protective order was cast over the evidence.

“The government should be reviewing this material,” Bob Clifford, the lead lawyer for the victims’ families, said in an interview. “Maybe some of the documents will help prosecutors connect the dots.”

The deferred-prosecution agreement was put in place during the waning days of the Trump administration. The current Justice Department under Attorney General Merrick Garland has supported the families’ efforts to share information but has also stood by the agreement.

Justice officials have informed lawyers for the families that their conversation Wednesday should be focused on whether they have any evidence that Boeing breached the agreement struck in early 2021. The deal allowed Boeing to acknowledge conspiracy to defraud US aviation regulators in connection with the 737 Max approval but avoid a criminal charge, as long as the company didn’t violate any other laws during its three-year duration.

Pact Expired

The pact expired two days after the door-plug blowout. Justice officials have until July 7 to finish their review.

The victims’ families are still smarting from being blindsided by the Justice Department’s decision to enter into the deferred-prosecution agreement, a pact that didn’t assign any culpability to senior Boeing executives who touted the safety of the plane after the first crash. They fear prosecutors will once again disappoint them.

“They have an opportunity to really listen, to do something about a terrible injustice,” said Naoise Connolly Ryan, whose husband died in the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash. “I’m terrified they won’t do it.”

As part of civil litigation against Boeing in Chicago, the families have extracted 3.8 million pages of internal documents from the company and conducted more than 200 depositions. Although they’ve dug through the mass of documents and communications turned over by Boeing, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have yet to find a simple answer to the question of whether Boeing broke the law.

In March, the company said it couldn’t find any records of work done on the door plug that blew off the Alaska Airlines flight.

A Boeing whistleblower contradicted that statement in a congressional hearing this month. Edward Pierson, a former Boeing employee who went public with his criticisms of the company in 2019, testified before a Senate committee that “records do exist documenting in detail the hectic work done on the Alaska Airlines airplane.”

Whistleblower Testimony

The Boeing deferred-prosecution agreement sparked criticism from legal scholars and consumer rights advocates, including Ralph Nader, whose grand niece was one of the 157 people who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. It turned into an embarrassment for the Justice Department when a federal judge in Texas found that prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by reaching its agreement with Boeing without consulting the families of the victims.

That finding led to an arraignment in Texas last year at which the victims’ families finally got to confront a senior Boeing executive and describe how the crashes had devastated their lives.

Clifford said the families plan to confront Justice Department officials in their meeting over the deferred-prosecution agreement, which appeared to absolve the company’s senior executives from wrongdoing. Instead, prosecutors charged a mid-level technical pilot, Mark Forkner, with misleading Federal Aviation Administration inspectors about the need for pilot training on the new plane. Forkner was acquitted following a brief trial, where jurors appeared to agree with his lawyers’ claims that he was a scapegoat.

“They want to know how the DPA was negotiated,” Clifford said. “They want to peel back the entire investigation and have it explained to them.”

The Justice Department declined to comment.