Legal Action Initiated Over Malaysian Flight's Disappearance

A Chicago law firm is taking the first legal action against Malaysian Airlines and Boeing, the maker of the 777 that disappeared over the Indian Ocean, on behalf of the families of the passengers.

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More debris was spotted over the weekend in the South Indian Ocean. This is in the area where that missing Malaysia Airlines flight is believed to have gone down. None of the debris has been linked to the flight, but that has not stopped legal action. A Chicago law firm has filed a motion on behalf of one passenger's family. Some legal experts are calling this premature.

Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The families of the passengers who were on board Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing have been through one anguishing day after another as they wait for solid information. The changing theories, the changing search areas, all of it adds one deep layer of pain on top of another, say the attorneys for the Ribbeck law firm of Chicago.

MERVIN MATEO: These people are, of course, heartbroken.

SCHAPER: Mervin Mateo is one of the firm's attorneys.

MATEO: They feel the information has been withheld from them, so that's one of the reasons we're filing this petition for discovery.

SCHAPER: The petition for discovery, according to Mateo, filed in Cook County Circuit Court against Chicago-based Boeing, the manufacturer of the 777 and against Malaysian Airlines, is meant to preserve any evidence of design or manufacturing defects, or operational problems or mistakes that might have contributed the plane's presumed crash into the South Indian Ocean.

MATEO: Eventually, we will file a lawsuit against those parties responsible based on the evidence and the documents we will obtain in this petition for discovery.

SCHAPER: The motion was filed on behalf of the family of Firman Siregar. But the Ribbeck firm says it expects to represent as many as half of the passengers' families.

And in seeking certain documents and information about the plane and the crew, the lawyers are already floating possible causes, including equipment failures or defects that may have caused a cockpit fire or other problem that rendered the pilots unconscious.

But such speculation, and the mere filing of the petition outrages other attorneys.

BOB CLIFFORD: It's a rank publicity stunt, plain and simple.

SCHAPER: Bob Clifford, of Clifford Law in Chicago, has represented the families of victims of the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, the Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam and of many other aviation disasters.

CLIFFORD: This is the type of action by a lawyer that makes the legal profession look bad. And we look bad enough already.

SCHAPER: Clifford points out that a similar motion for discovery filed by the same law firm after the Asiana plane crash in San Francisco last summer was quickly dismissed by a Cook County judge.

CLIFFORD: You have to have a good faith basis for invoking the jurisdiction of the court.

SCHAPER: And Clifford says he has not seen any evidence thus far that warrants taking any petition or motion to the courts just yet. He and others add that any legal efforts to hold responsible any of the entities who may be at fault will be incredibly difficult and complex.

Marshall Shapo is a professor of law at Northwestern University.

MARSHALL SHAPO: You've got, I don't know, four, five, six, eight possible hypotheses.

SCHAPER: Further complicating matters, says Shapo, is that this was a Malaysian Airliner on its way to Beijing that appears to have crashed in international waters.

SHAPO: Which law applies? Is it Malaysian law or Chinese law?

SCHAPER: Regardless, several aviation attorneys and experts in such cases doubt the proper legal venue in the case of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is in Chicago, or any U.S. court for that matter. And some doubt there will ever be any semblance of legal justice for the families of the passengers at all.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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