Sioux City air Crash Suit Settles for $15 Million

Daily Law Bulletin September 12, 1996

A Barrington man whose wife and only child were killed in the 1989 Sioux City, Iowa, plane crash settled his Cook County lawsuit Thursday morning for $15 million and obtained one defendant’s acknowledgment of fault for its role in the accident.

Plaintiff lawyer Robert A. Clifford and his client, Terry Brown, refused to settle his wrongful-death suit until General Electric Co., the designer of the plane’s engine that exploded, acknowledged fault for the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989.

Clifford said the hefty accord is nearly the last – and the third-largest – settlement arising out of the crash that occurred while the plane was en route from Denver to Chicago.

Clifford said Brown was “adamant” throughout the litigation that he wanted at least one defendant to acknowledge responsibility for the crash.

Richard Kennedy, manager of media relations for General Electric at its Cincinnati, Ohio, headquarters, said he would not go so far as to call G.E.’s acknowledgment an “admission of liability.”

“If you look at the wording [of the settlement papers], G.E. is not admitting liability,” said Kennedy. “It is simply recognizing the fact that each of the defendants in the case had some role in the circumstances leading to the accident. And, this role was determined by the National Transportation Safety Board report on the investigation of the accident.”

Besides General Electric, United and McDonnell Douglas Corp., which built the aircraft, also participated in the settlement. Their proportions of participation were not made public. Another defendant, Aluminum Company of America, did not pay out on the case.

“United and McDonnell Douglas still maintain their innocence, though General Electric gave in and acknowledged that they and the other two defendants were responsible,” said Clifford . “And, our read of the evidence is that [G.E.] had far greater culpability than the other defendants.”

General Electric’s attorneys, Charles W. Douglas and Sheila A. Sundvail of Sidley & Austin, were said to be out of town Thursday morning and could not be reached for comment.

John W. Adler and Michael G. McQuillen of Adler, Murphy & McQuillen represented United; Norman J. Barry and Daniel Cummings of Rothschild, Barry & Myers were local counsel for McDonnell Douglas. The aircraft manufacturer was also represented by Jeffrey Morof and Wayne Arnold in the Irvine, Calif., law office of Bryan Cave.

The settlement compensates Brown strictly for non-economic damages, Clifford said, adding that the plaintiff had specifically waived any claim for economic loss.

“This was the destruction-of-a-family case and that’s how I presented it,” Clifford said.

Brown’s wife, Janice, 35, and daughter, Kimberly, 11, were among the 112 persons killed in the crash that occurred while the pilot was attempting an emergency landing. There were 184 survivors.

G.E.’s Kennedy noted that the NTSB’s report concluded that the crash occurred after one of the plane’s three engines failed because of a crack in a fan disk that had not been detected in prior maintenance inspections. Debris from the broken disk severed the plane’s hydraulic lines so that the plane could not be controlled adequately, he said the report concluded.

“If you look at the circumstances and look at the NTSB report, this [settlement] is a recognition that each of the defendants had some role in this accident,” said Kennedy. “G.E. said we will publicly acknowledge the corporate responsibility for the circumstances.”

In prior local settlements of suits arising from the air crash, 13 plaintiffs shared in a $29 million settlement in June 1995 while survivors of one passenger, Gary Bierlein, settled their wrongful-death suit in 1992 for $25 million.

Chief Cook County Judge Donald P. O’Connell approved the settlement in Brown’s case, which had been consolidated for discovery and trial into Trombella, et al., v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., et al., No. 93 L 4326.

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