National News

Jul 14, 2013 8:19 PM by katc

Courts will treat Asiana passengers differently

The potential compensation payouts for people aboard Asiana Airlines Flight 214 will probably be very different for Americans and passengers from other countries, even if they were seated side by side as the South Korean jetliner crash-landed.

An international treaty governs compensation to passengers harmed by international air travel. The pact is likely to close U.S. courts to many foreigners and force them to pursue their claims in Asia and elsewhere, where lawsuits are rarer, harder to win and offer smaller payouts.

Some passengers have already contacted lawyers.

"If you are a U.S. citizen, there will be no problem getting into U.S. courts. The other people are going to have a fight on their hands," said California attorney Frank Pitre, who represents two Americans who were aboard the plane.

The flight that broke apart July 6 at the San Francisco airport was carrying 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 64 Americans, three Canadians, three Indians, one Japanese, one Vietnamese and one person from France when it approached the runway too low and too slow. The Boeing 777 hit a seawall before skidding across the tarmac and catching fire.

Three teenage girls from China were killed and 182 people injured, most not seriously.

Two girls, Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, both 16, died right away. It is unclear whether Ye died in the crash or in the chaotic aftermath. The other victim killed, 15-year-old Liu Yipeng, died Friday at a hospital where she had been in critical condition since the crash.

The dozens who were seriously injured - especially the few who were paralyzed - can expect to win multimillion-dollar legal settlements, as long as their claims are filed in U.S. courts, legal experts said.

California attorney Mike Danko, who is consulting with several lawyers from Asia about the disaster, said any passenger who was left a quadriplegic can expect settlements close to $10 million if the case is filed in the United States. Deaths of children, meanwhile, may fetch around $5 million to $10 million depending on the circumstances in U.S. courts.

In other countries, Danko explained, the same claims could be worth far less.

In 2001, a South Korean court ordered Korean Air Lines to pay $510,000 to a woman whose daughter, son-in-law and three grandsons were killed in a 1997 crash in the U.S. territory of Guam that killed 228 people.

Broken bones in plane accidents usually mean $1 million settlements in the Unites States and in the low five-figure range overseas, Danko said.

In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration put the value of a human life at $6 million. But again, Danko said, that estimate applies only in U.S. courts. Foreign courts can be expected to pay far smaller settlements.

In all, the South Korean government agency that regulates that country's insurance industry expects Asiana's insurers to pay out about $175.5 million total - $131 million to replace the plane and another $44.5 million to passengers and the city of San Francisco for damage to the airport. Suh Chang-suk, an official at Financial Supervisory Service, declined to discuss how the watchdog agency calculated its estimate.

The international treaty offers international passengers five options for where to seek compensation: where they live, their final destination, where the ticket was issued, where the air carrier is based and the air carrier's principal place of business.

Foreign passengers who had roundtrip tickets to final destinations beyond the U.S. face tough legal challenges to pursue their claims against the airline in the United States, where courts are more receptive to lawsuits and the payouts larger than in the courts of most other nations.

Asiana can also argue that it's much more convenient for it to litigate the Asian victims' cases in Asia because all parties are based there.

South Korean attorney Suh Dong Hee represented some the victims of the 1997 Korean Air Lines crash in Guam. He said family members of the victims who pursued their case in the United States settled for as much as 100 times more than those who sued in South Korea.

Brian Havel, director of DePaul University's International Aviation Law Institute, said the convention does require the airlines to make immediate "down payments" to victims to help with medical expenses, travel costs and other inconveniences caused by the crash.

"Everyone will get something," Havel said. "But who receives what does largely depend on where they qualify under the convention."

Pitre and others said the foreign passengers are still able to sue others who may have contributed to the accident, such as the plane's manufacturer, airport personnel and even, perhaps, the first responders.

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