Survivors Of Malaysia Airlines Flight Ask, What Next?

The families of passengers who were aboard the missing airline have many hard questions — including what kind of compensation they can expect. NPR's Scott Simon discusses this with lawyer Marc Moller.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. While the families of the passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 wait for news from search crews, there are many questions about what happens next. What kind of compensation can they expect? Can they sue the airline, Boeing, or both? Do they have to wait for the black boxes to be recovered before any proceedings can begin and what if those boxes are never found?

What if the plane is never found? We've reached Marc Moller, a partner with the law firm of Kreindler & Kreindler in New York. He has experience in this field. Mr. Moller, thanks so much for being with us.

MARC MOLLER: It's a pleasure to join you.

SIMON: You were representing the 125 people from the Asiana crash in San Francisco last year and have been involved in a lot of accident cases, as I understand it. Now, as we speak, we don't know what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight. We can't ever really certify the passengers are gone. Could that affect compensation?

MOLLER: I don't think it's going to have any affect on the right to obtain compensation from the airline. But it may significantly affect the right of compensation from other parties. The obligation of the airline to compensate the victims is governed by a treaty called the Montreal Convention of 1999. That convention makes the airline absolutely liable for unlimited damages unless the airline is able to prove complete absence of fault.

In the circumstances that presently exist in the Malaysia Airline tragedy, the airline would be hard pressed to be able to find a factual basis to exculpate itself from liability. On the other hand, the burden of proof that the victims' families have to meet in order to recover damages from a non-carrier, the manufacturer or component or systems manufacturers is really different. Plaintiffs have that burden, the victims have that burden.

SIMON: What about, let's say, a Chinese or Malaysian family that wants to sue Boeing and that's in the United States? Is that possible?

MOLLER: Yes. Now, Boeing will resist, but jurisdiction exists in the United States against Boeing if there is an identifiable defect or deficiency.

SIMON: But someone would need to recover some of the plane or evidence that would point to a manufacturer responsibility?

MOLLER: That's an absolutely correct statement. You can't just sue willy-nilly. You have to have evidence to justify the complaint.

SIMON: I'm going to assume Malaysia Airlines wouldn't be flying if it didn't carry insurance.

MOLLER: That's correct.

SIMON: Could the settlements they have to pay out be ruinous for them?

MOLLER: No, because in all likelihood it won't touch the airline's coffers at all. If they have insurance, the London market coupled with other insurance markets, has adequate insurance to deal with every air crash. The cost per seat or per passenger of insurance is probably less than the cost of the toothpick in a martini.

SIMON: Marc Moller, partner with Kreindler & Kreindler in New York City. Thanks so much for being with us.

MOLLER: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

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