WASHINGTON -- When a Soviet fighter shot down a Korean airliner over the Sea of Japan years ago, it took 12 minutes for the airliner to crash into the ocean. Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether damages must be paid for the passengers' suffering as they plunged to their deaths.
The outcome of the case, lawyers told the court, could affect lawsuits growing out of the crash of TWA Flight 800 into the Atlantic in 1996 soon after the plane took off from Kennedy International Airport.
Federal courts are in dispute over whether, in airline accidents over the ocean, the agony that passengers suffer in their final moments can be the subject of damage claims by their survivors.
The federal appeals court based in Washington ruled in July, in the Korean Air Lines case, that no one could recover damages for the pain and suffering of passengers who die in a crash on the high seas. The federal law that exclusively governs ocean accidents -- the Death on the High Seas Act -- does not allow such claims, the court declared.
Under prior court rulings, relatives of those who die can collect only for their own financial losses that can be traced to the passengers' deaths.
At issue now is the right of heirs to receive damages resulting from the period just before death occurs, while the accident is in process. That right would probably not exist if the passenger dies instantly.
The question was put before the Supreme Court by people who manage the estates of five passengers who died when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 crashed on Sept. 1, 1983.
On a journey from New York to Seoul, the airliner strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down. All 269 people aboard were killed.
In earlier stages of lawsuits arising out of that incident, Korean Air Lines has been blamed for willful misconduct leading to the passengers' deaths. But those lawsuits have continued for nearly 14 years, with some issues over damages still unsettled.
After the Supreme Court rules on the latest issue, the remaining cases are expected to be resolved. A ruling is expected by summer.
In a second action yesterday, the court agreed to decide FTC whether it is unconstitutional for police without a warrant to arrest, and take to a police station, a suspect in a minor crime in which no one was endangered or hurt.
That issue was raised by Randall Ricci, a businessman from Arlington Heights, Ill., who was arrested and held by police for an hour after they discovered that he was operating a telephone marketing business without a license. Ricci was freed after his wife obtained the license.