Suits allowed in '83 KAL jet downing

May 08, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court upheld yesterday a jury's conclusion that a Korean Air Lines flight crew's "willful misconduct" was to blame for the death of all aboard a jet shot down by Soviet military aircraft over the Sea of Japan nearly eight years ago.

The ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals clears the way for a new round of court proceedings in which the survivors of 137 of the passengers will be asking for millions in damages from the airline.

A finding of "willful misconduct" on the part of an airline in an international air crash allows damages to go beyond the usual $75,000 per-passenger limit set by a treaty, the Warsaw Convention.

The Circuit Court, while setting the stage for damages above that individual limit, ruled in favor of the airline on a separate legal issue involving damages. The court ruled that the Warsaw Convention does not allow for "punitive damages" -- that is, a money verdict going beyond the dollar value of actual harms done in order to make an example of the wrongdoer and deter others from similar misconduct.

The jury had awarded $50 million in punitive damages against Korean Air Lines. Yesterday's ruling wipes that out.

KAL Flight 007 was shot down Sept. 1, 1983, somewhere over the Sea of Japan by Soviet interceptor aircraft. All 240 passengers and 29 crew members died.

Although 240 passengers died, survivors of a number of them settled with the airline for the $75,000-per-passenger figure set by the Warsaw Convention as virtually automatic damages for deaths in international flights. A total of 137 passengers' survivors sued the airline and won the jury verdict that the flight crew had engaged in "willful misconduct" leading to the crash.

Normally, lawsuits over air crashes are filed in state courts under state law, but they can go to federal courts when the crash involves international or interstate interests.

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