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Families of plane crash victims react to Boeing's plea agreement

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a response this morning to a plea agreement for Boeing. Boeing agreed to pay a quarter-billion-dollar fine and invest in safety after two planes crashed. The crashes of these 737 Max passenger planes killed hundreds, and we've called a lawyer who represents some of the families - Paul Cassell, who is also a law professor at the University of Utah, where it is very early this morning. Mr. Cassell, thanks for joining us. I appreciate it.

PAUL CASSELL: Pleasure to be here.

INSKEEP: How have the families been represented in these negotiations between Boeing and the government?

CASSELL: Well, they've been left on the outside looking in, but that's about to change now. Now that the prosecutors and defense attorneys have reached a plea deal, victims get a voice in the process. They don't have a veto over this, but they do get to go to Judge O'Connor, the judge who's handling the matter, and say that this is a deal that's not in the public interest, and they can ask the judge to reject the deal.

INSKEEP: And so that would be in the form of a hearing, where they might testify as to their own experiences?

CASSELL: Exactly. What's going to happen, as we understand it, is there'll be some briefing, and then family members from around the world will be traveling to the federal court in Fort Worth, Texas. The judge has a lot of discretion here. The ultimate test is whether this is in the public interest, to have the charges essentially resolved in this way, and the victims, I think, have some very powerful reasons to suggest this isn't a good deal.

INSKEEP: OK, well, let's understand what those are. I mean, $250 million does sound to me like a very large fine. They're also investing, I believe, twice that amount in compliance with rules and in safety. Why is that insufficient?

CASSELL: Well, the overarching feature of this deal is there's no criminal accountability for Boeing killing 346 people. We're waiting to get all the details, but as we understand the deal, Boeing doesn't admit that it was criminally responsible for killing hundreds of people from Indonesia to Ethiopia, a number of families in between. And so without that accountability, it's really hard for the families to see how things are going to go forward.

Now, you mentioned a $243 million fine. Boeing was facing at least a $24 billion potential fine, so that's two orders of magnitude less than what they were looking at. They're also talking about investing more in safety, but of course, they were already doing that as a result of outside pressure on them from the Alaskan Air blowout and a number of other problems. So this isn't really a significant obligation that Boeing is undertaking as part of the plea deal, and so the families are planning to point all that out to Judge O'Connor.

INSKEEP: When you say that there should be criminal accountability, do you mean somebody should be going to prison?

CASSELL: Well, yes, there should be not only corporate accountability here. Boeing should admit that it killed 346 people by lying to the FAA, but the then-corporate leadership of Boeing should be prosecuted, as well. We think it's very clear the evidence shows that the leadership of Boeing at the time knew exactly what was going on, that there was this safety defect in the 737 Max. But because it was cheaper to leave the problem running and conceal that fact from the flying public and Boeing's aircraft customers, that's what caused the two crashes. And so we're disappointed that that isn't going to be covered through some kind of court hearing or ultimate jury trial, if this deal goes through, and that's one of the points the families are going to make when they object to the deal.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note, we have reached out to Boeing. A spokesperson there confirmed to us that there is a plea agreement in principle but did not respond to a request for comment on some of the specific allegations that you're raising. We'll find out if we learn more about them or more of a response in days to come. I'd like to ask you, in the few seconds we have left, though, are the families compensated in some way as part of this agreement?

CASSELL: Well, it seems to be, on the surface, that there's going to be some obligation of Boeing to pay restitution, but as we drill into the details, it seems like that's illusory, that Boeing isn't really going to be making any payments to the families. But the real point here is Boeing is not admitting it killed 346 people.

INSKEEP: Mr. Cassell, thanks very much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

CASSELL: Glad to talk about this important case.

INSKEEP: Paul Cassell is a lead attorney representing families who oppose the Boeing plea deal, after the crash of two 737 Max airplanes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 9, 2024 at 10:58 AM CDT
An earlier version of this page incorrectly stated the model of the Boeing planes that crashed as 747. It has been updated to reflect the correct model.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.