Southwest 'despicably focused' on punctuality, Flight 1248 suits claim

Legal News Line Jan. 8, 2007, 9:29am

After the crash

A Southwest Airlines flight that skidded off the runway at Chicago's Midway Airport on a snowy evening last winter continues to spawn litigation, with two more suits filed against the airline in November 2006. The complaints stem from the Dec. 8, 2005 crash of Flight 1248, a Boeing B-737 jet operated by Southwest Airlines. Snowy conditions, poor visibility, a tailwind, and Midway's relatively short runway led the plane to overrun the landing strip, roll through a perimeter fence, and collide with two vehicles on a Chicago street abutting the airport. A 6-year-old passenger in one of those cars was killed in the incident. Ten others were reported injured at the time. It was the first fatal accident in Southwest Airlines' 35-year history. The National Traffic Safety Board's investigation into the incident continues. In its preliminary report, the NTSB found that the plane's thrust reversers (manufactured by Boeing) were not deployed until 18 seconds after touchdown, at which point there was only about 1,000 feet of usable runway remaining. The Board has not concluded whether this was due to a manufacturing defect, pilot error, or other factors. Boeing, for its part, issued a report last year claiming that a landing on the runway under that night's conditions would have been unsafe even if everything had been working perfectly. With moderate snow on the runway and a tailwind, Boeing says it would take about 5,800 feet to stop. The runway that Flight 1248 used was 5,826 feet long. A full report by the NTSB is not expected until the board is finished collecting data and interviewing all involved. No holding back Personal injury lawyers aren't holding their breath, however. The Clifford law firm of Chicago, a group known for securing large verdicts in aviation cases, is representing the family of Joshua Woods, the boy killed in the accident. His family filed suit against Southwest and Boeing in April 2006 in Cook County Circuit Court. The case was later removed to federal court and is now in the midst of pretrial motions. Eleven other personal injury actions involving numerous plaintiffs were filed in Cook County in 2006 on behalf of passengers of Flight 1248. Those cases as well have since been removed to federal court in the Northern District of Illinois. The two most recent cases stemming from the incident were filed in November. One, brought by seven plaintiffs on Nov. 21, includes six passengers from Flight 1248 as plaintiffs and another individual who was in the vicinity of the plane when it landed. All allege various theories of negligence against Southwest, Boeing and the City of Chicago. Mahdi Abdelgader was on the ground at the time of the incident and alleges that he was struck by the plane's emergency chute as it opened. Abdelgader seeks more than $50,000 in damages for physical injuries, emotional distress, lost wages and medical bills. Abdelgader complains on three separate counts. The first is negligence against Southwest for negligently and carelessly attempting to land Flight 1248 on runway 31C in unsafe conditions. The second count alleges willful and wanton conduct against Southwest – essentially, that the airline acted with utter indifference to the public's safety when landing the plane. In the willful and wanton count, Abdelgader alleges that Southwest "despicably focused on keeping within flight schedules, punctuality and cost savings," and Southwest "gave the pilots great discretion … to make life-and-death policy decisions with company profitability in mind at all times." The count also alleges that Southwest "was motivated, in substantial part, to attempt this unsafe landing to save time and money, and created a corporate culture of rushed operation." Were it not for the airline's "outrageous and despicable" actions, the plaintiff argues, his injuries would not have occurred. The six other plaintiffs echo this sentiment in their allegations against Southwest. It appears likely Southwest will defend itself in all Flight 1248 cases by arguing that plaintiffs' common law claims are preempted by federal statute (49 U.S.C. 40401) and more properly an Federal Aviation Administration matter. It will also argue that its actions were not the sole proximate cause of the incident, and even if they were found to be a cause, the airline must be found more than 25 percent responsible for liability to be attached. Abdelgader's third count is a strict liability charge against Boeing, for outfitting the B-737 jet with unreasonably dangerous autobrakes and reverse thrust systems. Whether this count will stick may depend in part on the NTSB's final report on the accident, and whether the reverse thrusters were actually faulty or simply were not deployed early enough. The fourth count in Abdelgader's complaint charges the City of Chicago with negligence, for the city's alleged mismanagement, operation, and maintenance of the Midway airport runway. The six passengers named as plaintiffs in this suit (Connie Acevedo, Craig M. Jones, Jodi D. Kinner, Phyllis T. Lopez, Frances M. O'Neill, and Angela P. Wilkes) bring forth similar allegations. Each individual brings four counts: negligence against Southwest, willful and wanton conduct against Southwest, strict liability against Boeing, and negligence against the City of Chicago for the same reasons spelled out in Abdelgader's complaint. All allege that, as passengers on the plane, they were injured and suffered damages as a result of the accident. Each plaintiff seeks over $50,000 in damages against the various defendants. Rapoport Law Offices All plaintiffs in this case are represented by the Rapoport Law Offices, a Chicago firm specializing in personal injury actions and airplane crash litigation. The firm's notable verdicts include $14 million secured for plaintiffs involved in a 1999 American Airlines accident, and $13 million from a 1998 SwissAir crash. The firm plans to seek punitive damages from Southwest in this case. Another suit was filed on Nov. 22, 2006 by Manu Parikh, a passenger on Flight 1248. Parikh's suit is a four-count complaint against Southwest and the City of Chicago. Boeing is not named. The Parikh case was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, and removed to federal court on Dec. 20, 2006. Count I alleges negligence against Southwest for failure to properly assess landing conditions, proceeding with the landing in spite of unsafe conditions, and failing to properly deploy the proper combination of wheel brakes, autobrakes, spoilers, and thrust reversers when landing. Count II alleges willful and wanton conduct against Southwest. Count III alleges that the City of Chicago was negligent in its ownership, operation, control, and maintenance of the airport and its runways. Count IV alleges willful and wanton conduct, charging the city with acting in conscious disregard for the safety of others by not properly inspecting the runway in question. Parikh's suit argues that as a result of the acts and omissions by Southwest and the City of Chicago, he suffered "emotional and traumatic psychological injuries." Parikh seeks more than $50,000 in damages, which may include punitives. Romanucci & Blandin He is represented by Antonio M. Romanucci and Stephen D. Blandin of Romanucci & Blandin, a Chicago firm specializing in personal injury claims. The firm boasts on its web site that it is "relentless in its prosecution of negligent airlines" and has secured multimillion-dollar verdicts in four other aviation cases. Romanucci & Blandin is also pursuing claims on behalf Eugene Weslowski, another passenger on Flight 1248. Southwest now faces 12 suits in the Northern District of Illinois stemming from the crash of Flight 1248. The airline is represented by Merlo, Kanofsky, Brinkmeier & Gregg, Ltd. The firm has significant experience as defense counsel in air crash litigation. The 1989 crash of United Airlines Flight 232 and the 1996 ValuJet crash are among the notable cases in which the firm served on behalf of the airlines. The firm's answer to the Parikh complaint, filed on Jan. 2, denies all allegations stated in the negligence and willful and wanton claims. At this point, Southwest is handling each case separately and has not moved to join plaintiffs and consolidate the actions.

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