Boeing faces growing number of federal lawsuits following two deadly crashes

Published: Apr. 10, 2019 at 6:23 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Civil lawsuits are starting to pile up against aviation giant Boeing following the crashes of two 737 Max 8 aircraft.

At least 8 federal complaints have been filed against Chicago-based Boeing since April 4, and most of them have been filed by family members of passengers killed in the Ethiopian Airlines Max crash last month and the Lion Air Max crash last year. In all, 346 people died.

“Investigation into both crashes is ongoing, but the similarities in the aircraft and the investigative findings for the crashes thus far points to a common cause,” court documents claimed. “Shortly after taking off and while attempting to climb, pilots for both aircraft reported flight control issues as the planes pitched up and down erratically throughout the sky. The flight paths and data released thus far for both aircraft show that the pilots were engaged in a terrifying tug-of-war with the plane’s automated systems as the pilots manually tried to climb while the computer system repeatedly caused the plane to dive with increasing nose-down trim against the pilot inputs. Pilots of both Flight 302 and Flight 610 lost their fight with Boeing’s flight computer, and hundreds of passengers and crew lost their lives due to Boeing’s flight computer driver the airplanes into the ground.”

One lawsuit claims Boeing rushed the Boeing 737 Max 8 to production and actively concealed the nature of its automated system defects to keep up with rival sales.

“The need to minimize design changes served an important business need for Boeing. If airline pilots did not require costly and time-consuming training in the new aircraft because it was viewed as merely an update to the familiar 737NG, it would make the 737 MAX cheaper for airlines to operate. This in turn would make the price for the 737 MAX more competitive relative to the Airbus A320neo and far more profitable for Boeing,” the complaint stated. “As Boeing’s business leaders required engineers to contain the level of change to avoid pilot retraining and make the 737 MAX more marketable, Boeing now needed to engineer a band-aid to fix the aircraft’s handling issues created by the larger and more powerful engines.”

That so-called “band-aid” would be a flight control system which the lawsuit claims, “addressed one problem but created another.”

“Since the MCAS [Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System] was intended to operate in the background without pilot knowledge, Boeing did not even inform pilots that the MCAS existed. The MCAS was not disclosed in the aircraft’s flight manual either. Pilots would only learn indirectly about the MCAS when the plane began automatically fighting their pitch commands, often at low altitudes with little time to react and resolve the issue,” the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs in this particular complaint also reference a federal lawsuit filed by a former Boeing Quality Assurance Conformity Manager in South Carolina.

“This manager was tasked with inspecting all newly manufactured aircraft for compliance with internal engineering and safety specifications. Each incidence of non-conformity that Boeing inspectors encounter is supposed to be documented by Boeing as well as all repairs and subsequent inspections,” the lawsuit said. “On information and belief, this manager’s allegations relating to violations of safety standards, falsified inspection records, and an environment of distrust and retaliation, are representative of wrongful conduct and violation of safety protocols at other Boeing manufacturing facilities. Plaintiffs further allege that these issues were known, encouraged and/or ratified by Boeing’s leadership and contributed to a culture that suppressed voices raising the alarm about safety in furtherance of Boeing’s profit-driven focus.”

Pilots had also expressed concerns about the 737 Max jets in the weeks prior to the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March.

The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) database describes itself as " the world’s largest repository of voluntary, confidential safety information provided by aviation’s frontline personnel, including pilots, controllers, mechanics, flight attendants, and dispatchers. The database provides a foundation for specific products and subsequent research addressing a variety of aviation safety issues."

“I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” one pilot wrote. " The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error prone--even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place, and failure modes. I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know? The Flight Manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient. All airlines that operate the MAX must insist that Boeing incorporate ALL systems in their manuals."

Another pilot also said a clearer aircraft operations manual was needed.

Two other pilots also reported “an autopilot anomaly in which led to an undesired brief nose down situation.”

A fifth said that the plane briefly deviated from its cruising altitude but pointed the finger on himself for his lack of experience in the aircraft.

The data shows these flights happened in late 2018 and gives the time of day, the rest of the information such as the airline or associated airport are redacted.

“Boeing’s attempts to deflect blame onto purportedly poorly trained pilots wrongfully minimizes Boeing’s responsibility for these crashes,” a lawsuit stated. “It is foreseeable that pilots would be confused by MCAS’ control over the 737 MAX 8 as the system’s nose-down commands were different from a common stabilizer problem and because pilots were not told the MCAS existed or how it functioned. When seconds matter, the confusion caused by Boeing’s defective and unsafe design, and failure to inform pilots, is the difference between life and death.”

Meanwhile, Boeing is facing a lawsuit from shareholders, too. The plaintiff alleges the aerospace company defrauded shareholders by failing to disclose safety issues with the 737 Max planes.

“Throughout the Class Period, Defendants effectively put profitability and growth ahead of airplane safety and honesty. As alleged more fully below, throughout the Class Period Defendants misled investors about the sustainability of Boeing’s core operation – its Commercial Airplanes segment – by touting its growth prospects and profitability, raising guidance, and maintaining that the Boeing 737 MAX was the safest airplane to fly the skies,” the complaint said. “Boeing made these statements all while concealing the full extent of safety problems caused by the placement of larger engines on the 737 MAX that changed the handling characteristics of the 737 MAX from previous models.”

The 737 Max series jets were grounded worldwide following the two deadly crashes.

The proposed class action seeks damages after Boeing’s stock shed about 13 percent of its value in the weeks following the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max plane. In addition to Boeing, CEO Dennis Muilenburg and Chief Financial Officer Gregory Smith are named as defendants, CBS reported.

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