Chicago court to hear Air Philippines lawsuit

PINOY Newsmagazine/Philippine News
April 2006

By Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — Family members of the victims of Air Philippines Flight 541 disaster, cleared a legal hurdle after a Chicago appeals court recently allowed their lawsuit to be heard through the courts here.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kathy A. Flanagan’s earlier ruling, that the case against Illinois-based AAR Aircraft & Engine Group, which leased the ill-fated Boeing 737-200 to Air Philippines, must be tried in Illinois.

In connection with this development, PINOY Newsmagazine has learned that North Cotabato Manny Piñol, who lost three of his relatives in the accident, is arriving in Chicago on April 20 to personally meet with the legal team handling the case.

While in Chicago, Gov. Piñol will also appear in court and secure from Judge Flanagan a letter formally requesting the Philippine government to release the flight data recorder of the plane, which is a crucial piece of evidence of the accident.

Meanwhile, in a statement, lawyer Donald J. Nolan said: “We are now moving forward with the fight for justice for the victims of this tragic crash.” Nolan, a personal injury and wrongful death litigator, is representing the families of 54 of the victims. He did not mention any amount of monetary compensation being sought by the families.

Flight 541, from Manila to Davao, crashed into a hill near Davao City on April 19, 2000, killing all 131 passengers and crew, including Gov. Piñol’s sister-in-law, a niece and a nephew.

Nolan asserts that AAR should be held liable for the crash, for “carelessly leasing a defective plane way past its prime” to Air Philippines. “As a result over a hundred people died a horrible death.”

Nolan also said he “strongly believes” that the case should be tried in Illinois, because the defendants are based here.

AAR bought the 20-year old Boeing 737 aircraft in 1998, from Southwest Airlines. In 1999, AAR leased the plane to Air Philippines. AAR then sold it to another Illinois-based company, Fleet Business Credit’s Capital Leasing division, who then held the lease responsibilities. Fleet is named co-defendant.

PINOY contacted Chris Mason, a spokesman of AAR but he refused to comment saying, “It is the company’s policy not to comment on an on-going litigation.” Mason then referred this reporter to defense counsel, Gary Westerberg of Lord Bissel and Brook LLP. Westerberg, however, did not return the call.

Earlier, the defendants asked Judge Flanagan to transfer the hearing of the case to a court in the Philippines for convenience. Flanagan rejected their argument, leading the defendants to appeal the ruling.

However, the Appellate Court rejected the defendant’s motion, saying, it can only overrule Flanagan’s decision if it is proven that she “abused” her discretion.

The lawsuit further claims that the aircraft was delivered to Air Philippines without key records on safety and maintenance. It also accuses Air Philippines of hiring unqualified flight crews.

Nolan also claimed that the crash probe was halted “when the aircraft wreckage was buried and concrete poured over it shortly after the tragedy.” He said it should have been AAR’s responsibility to preserve all pieces of the aircraft wreckage.

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