US Judge Refuses To Dismiss French TWA Crash Cases
October 7, 1999

By Gail Appleson, Law Correspondent

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge Thursday ruled that lawsuits filed against Trans World Airlines and Boeing by the families of 45 French passengers killed in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 will remain in the United States.

U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet denied a motion by TWA and Boeing to dismiss the cases so that they could be tried in France. Plaintiffs lawyers said the ruling was a victory for families because damage awards are much higher in the United States.

"Recovery in France is only a fraction of what they can get here," said Lee Kreindler, the lead plaintiffs lawyer in the litigation. The 45 suits by French plaintiffs are among about 216 crash-related cases that have been consolidated in Manhattan federal court.

TWA and Boeing had unsuccessfully argued that the cases should be dismissed and moved to France because it is a more convenient location. The defendants said that if their motion had been granted, they would have agreed to submit to French law and would not contest liability for compensatory damages.

However, Sweet wrote that U.S. law favors the plaintiff's choice of location unless "private and public interest factors clearly point toward trial in the alternative forum."

Kreindler said the ruling was important in other pending aviation litigation including cases stemming from last year's Swissair crash off Nova Scotia, in which 229 people were killed. The plane was on its way to Geneva from New York.

Kreindler said he believes that defendants in that litigation will also move to have some cases dismissed in the United States in favor of foreign locations where damages would be less.

In the July 17, 1996 TWA crash, the jumbo jet exploded off Long Island killing all 230 people on board. Safety investigators suspect that an electrical fault ignited fumes in the center fuel tank of the plane.

The disaster occurred after the plane left John F. Kennedy International Airport for a flight to Paris and Rome. Most of the foreign passengers on the plane were French.

Sweet said that he was not aware of any case arising from a catastrophic event that happened in the United States that was dismissed on convenient-forum grounds in order to be filed in another country.

"The catastrophe happened not far from this Courthouse," Sweet wrote. "The investigation into the cause of the catastrophe has been enormously extensive and costly consuming the energy and resources of multiple administrative agencies of the United States Government and the State of New York."

Sweet also said that the "piecemeal litigation" that would occur if the French cases were dismissed weighed against the defendants' motion.