The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

July 14, 2013

Courts will treat Asiana passengers differently

SAN FRANCISCO — When the courts have to figure compensation for people aboard Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the potential payouts will probably be vastly different for Americans and passengers from other countries, even if they were seated side by side as the jetliner crash-landed.

An international treaty governs compensation to passengers harmed by international air travel — from damaged luggage to crippling injuries and death. The pact is likely to close U.S. courts to many foreigners and force them to pursue their claims in Asia and elsewhere, where lawsuits are rarer, harder to win and offer smaller payouts.

Some passengers have already contacted lawyers.

"If you are a U.S. citizen, there will be no problem getting into U.S. courts. The other people are going to have a fight on their hands," said Northern California attorney Frank Pitre, who represents two Americans who were aboard the plane.

Federal law bars lawyers from soliciting victims of air disasters for the first 45 days after the crash. Pitre said his clients called him.

Congress enacted that law in 1996 amid public anger over lawyers who solicited clients in the days immediately following the ValuJet Flight 592 crash in the Florida Everglades and the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the New York coast.

National Transportation Safety Board attorney Benjamin Allen reminded attorneys of the rules in a mass email sent Thursday.

"We are closely monitoring the activities of attorneys following this accident, and will immediately notify state bar ethics officials and other appropriate authorities if impermissible activity is suspected," the message said.

The flight that broke apart recently at the San Francisco airport was carrying 141 Chinese, 77 South Koreans, 64 Americans, three Canadians, three Indians, one Japanese, one Vietnamese and one person from France when it approached the runway too low and too slow. The Boeing 777 hit a seawall before skittering across the tarmac and catching fire.

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