National Law Journal
TWA crash records to be viewed
Amanda Bronstad/Staff reporter
September 18, 2006
LOS ANGELES-A retired United Airlines captain who sued the National
Transportation Safety Board, the Central Intelligence Agency and the
National Security Agency has won a partial victory in the first
ruling granting public access to records in the investigation of TWA
Flight 800, which crashed a decade ago off the coast of New York's
The recent ruling, in a case brought by H. Ray Lahr, also
establishes a guideline for aviation lawyers and others seeking
records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In the years following the crash, the families of the 230 victims of
TWA Flight 800 settled lawsuits for undisclosed sums.
Meanwhile, dozens of FOIA requests were made and about a half-dozen
lawsuits were filed seeking access to the records of the
investigation, which concluded that the plane was destroyed by a
fuel tank explosion. The suits allege that a missile, rather than
mechanical failure, destroyed TWA Flight 800 minutes after takeoff.
A FOIA avalanche?
The recent ruling grants Lahr, who lives in Malibu, Calif., access
to seven of 12 records requested primarily from the CIA.
H. Ray Lahr v. National
Transportation Safety Board, No. 2:03-cv-08023 (C.D.
U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz granted access to the identities
of eyewitnesses and flight characteristics of the aircraft but
denied access to portions of an e-mail and an National Security
Agency computer simulation. The judge is expected to rule in the
next 30 days on two other pending motions, which involve at least 23
more records, according to John Clarke, a solo practitioner in
Washington who represents Lahr.
"We're hoping this ruling will start an avalanche of FOIA suits,"
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Civil Division of the Department
of Justice, declined to comment while government lawyers review the
The 55-page ruling sets the bar higher for the government, said
Ronald L.M. Goldman, a partner and aviation attorney at Los
Angeles-based Baum Hedlund.
"This is a significant ruling because of the care with which the
court approached the issues," said Goldman, whose firm represented
the families of more than a dozen victims of TWA Flight 800.
"As a practical matter, it signals to those who would prefer to
withhold documents they'll be held to a tougher standard," Goldman
TWA Flight 800, bound for Charles de Gaulle International Airport in
Paris, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after taking off from
John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
In 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) produced
its accident report, but the cause of the crash was questioned years
In March 2005, a federal judge in Massachusetts granted summary
judgment to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a suit filed by
Graeme Sephton, then head of an organization representing families
of the crash victims, who sought a more complete search of records
related to debris found in the bodies of some victims.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in a July 2006
decision. Sephton v. FBI,
No. 3:00-cv-30121 (D. Mass.).
Lahr, a former Navy pilot who assisted in seven airplane crash
investigations for the NTSB, said TWA Flight 800 could not have
climbed thousands of feet after the explosion.
He sued in 2003 for more than 100 FOIA requests, many of which have
been withdrawn. Among the records requested are formulas, e-mails,
charts and computer simulations explaining how the government came
to its conclusion.
Lahr, who received some documents with redactions, sought full
In his ruling, Matz recognized Lahr's numerous reasons for believing
that the government participated in a massive cover-up, such as
conflicting eyewitness testimony and the physically impossible
"zoom-climb" theory on which the investigation is based.
The judge said that "taken together, this evidence is sufficient to
permit Plaintiff to proceed based on his claim that the government
acted improperly in its investigation of Flight 800, or at least
performed in a grossly negligent fashion. Accordingly, the public
interest in ferreting out the truth would be compelling indeed."