Interview | Air Crash Consultants

George Hatcher Interview
(Translated from Portuguese)

Specialist in indemnities of air accidents comments on cases involving the Tam and Air France disasters.

1/09/2009 - 09:47 - São Paulo - Consultant and strategist who works with world-renowned lawyers, George Hatcher speaks on the question of the indemnities to the relatives of the victims of the accidents with flights JJ 3054, of the TAM, and AF447, of Air France, analyzes the inquiries to determine the causes of the accidents and--as a non-lawyer--guides the families in the search for their rights.

First, I believe that it is important to understand the first step that must after be taken by the victim families after an accident like the Airbus A330 of the Air France, that killed 228 people on June 1.

First find a law office that has the necessary experience in aviation. Contracting an American lawyer does not mean, necessarily that the family is taking the case to be judged in the United States. In the case of the Air France, it is very early for saying where the litigation will be. If the family contracts a firm that has the experience and is situated in the United States, it will have an advantage when the negotiations with the insurance companies occur. The last place that the insurance company wants to go with the litigation is the United States. Historically, our judges tend to be sympathetic and generous with families of victims of air accidents.

It is impossible to put a dollar value on the life of a human being, however, at some point, just such an estimated value must be given. An experienced lawyer will be able to do this, based on standard factors such as profession, age, dependents, and other characteristics. For example, a subject that in Brazil does not function very well, but in the United States is a recurring matter is the question of "pain and suffering". Thus, the defense has these two matters to work, that is, the outstanding financial loss for the victim to his or her family and pain and suffering that the victim had knowing that those would be the last minutes or seconds of his or her life.

The family does not contract a US firm to try the case the United States. The family contracts them because they wants the optimum lawyer and the best firm at its disposal to represent its interest in any place in the world.

It is common knowledge that the law firms you consult for represented 77 TAM air crash families. How are those cases proceeding and what do you think of the decision issued by the Federal Judge Marcia G. Cooke, who decided for the forum non conveniens, regardless the partial agreement already signed with TAM and the huge amount of discovery already made by plaintiffs’ lawyers? Is there a possibility to revert this decision?

- George Hatcher: The accident occurred on July 17, 2007. In August and September 2008, settlement offers from the insurance carriers of TAM were presented to the families; the partial settlement with the 77 families exceeded 120 million dollars. In a Florida Federal Court, Judge Marcia G Cook granted the motion of Forum Non Conveniens on the remaining cases against Airbus, Goodrich and IAE. This means that instead of going to trial on March 2010, the case is being prepared for an appeal. The decision to send it back to Brazil will have to wait until the conclusion of the appeal. We believe that during the appeals process, the negotiations with the defendants may result in settlements for the families. This decision is interesting to the Court of Appeals because the Judge decided against the family of an American citizen, who is one of our clients; and that interest provides a strong motivation for the defendants to settle.

The Federal Courts, together with the Public Prosecutor’s Office and other consumer defense groups will be working in an operational option to compensate beneficiaries of Flight 447 of Air France. Their goal is to speed up agreements between relatives and insurers. The procedures will be similar to those handled by the Compensation Chamber in TAM case, which settled with 92% of the families that looked for the chamber, within a period of 16 months. Would that be the best solution?

- George Hatcher: – By doing that, the family will be forced to settle for less money than the case could really be worth, considering they would be represented by a lawyer. After a "compensation chamber" type situation, if investigators find later evidence of failures on the part of manufacturers that could have contributed to the tragedy which it is likely that the long investigation will turn up--the chamber decision would hinder the family in future attempts to sue anyone else in the case. In other words, whatever they accept from the Compensation Chamber is all they will get from all parties found guilty.

The families’ association for the Flight 447 filed a complaint in the Federal Prosecutor’s Office asking Brazilian authorities to take part in Air France accident investigations. The families are also considering looking for ANAC’s help. Are these initiatives really necessary? What would be the best path right now?

- George Hatcher: It is good for the families to join together and politically push for prosecution of responsible parties, but having the deceased’s name involved in a lawsuit in Brazil can be complicated. It could help the defendants in an American Court, in the case of a motion for Forum Non Conveniens. The defendants could argue that the family had already filed a civil action in Brazil and that the proper forum should be Brazil, not United States.

You had been to Brazil 3 times now to meet some families. How many families already retained you, and how are their lawsuits proceeding? What are the chances of favorable litigation in American courts for Air France case?

- George Hatcher – I cannot disclose how many families we have signed, but I can say that we have over 10 families. As I said before, it’s too soon to know if this case will go to the United States. There’s still a lot to do before the lawyers can say for sure. The most important thing now is for each family to secure proper representation by a law firm expert in aviation tragedies.

"If the black boxes are never found, experts will reconstruct the events and come up with an explanation of what really happened in this air crash."

France announced the discontinuation of the second phase of searching for the black boxes, and then announced this week that they will begin the third search phase. Considering the difficulty of locating such devices, what are the options to better understand what happened? What tools can be used to discover evidence of failure in the aircraft and its parts? How long can such an investigation can take without the black-boxes?

- George Hatcher: The black box from the Yemenia Air crash was recently discovered in the Indian Ocean. That crash occurred shortly after this Air France tragedy. It is too soon to give up the search. However, if the black boxes are never found, experts will reconstruct the events and come up with an explanation of what really happened in this air crash. Nowadays, such experts have access to countless tools to do things we can’t even imagine. There's really no way to put a timetable on the length of time the investigation will take.

The family of a flight attendant who died in AF 447 announced they will file a complaint asking for the indictment of Air France. They are convinced that the company is accountable for failure to provide a safe working environment. With regards to the crew, what measures can be taken to find justice in the courts?

George Hatcher: – The French Government has their own rules for handling workers rights and compensation issues. However, families should fight together and push politically to change anything they believe contributed to this crash and the killing of their loved ones.

Have you planned the next Brazil trip to deal with the cases involving the accident with Air France Flight 447?

- George Hatcher: Our next visit to Brazil will be the next week, when we will go also meet with some of the families of the victims and with the lawyers who represent who them in the country. | Jessi Kovatch