Nineteen days after Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared, search teams have still found no shred of physical evidence to clarify what happened to it or to the 239 people aboard.
But as planes and ships hunt the waters of the Indian Ocean for possible wreckage, lawyers are already scouting for clients at the Lido Hotel in Beijing, where passengers’ relatives are staying.
Holding out the prospect of multimillion dollar compensation deals, aviation disaster lawyers from US and Chinese firms are hovering in the hotel’s coffee shop and corridors in the hope that the biggest mystery in modern aviation history will end with a major payout for victims’ families, and for them.
“I’m here because I hope that some clients will choose my firm and that the case will be heard in the United States,” says Keke Feng, who flew in from San Diego to promote the services of Motley Rice, a US law practice that specializes in aviation cases. “I want to let them know that they have options.”
Few of the relatives of the 154 Chinese passengers on board MH370 seem ready yet to think about those options. Most still hold out hope their family members may be alive.
“I have not considered a lawsuit or hiring a lawyer yet because what we want is not money but our relatives back,” says one man whose sister was on the flight and who asked not to be identified. “They haven’t found the plane yet. Without the truth and a real conclusion, how can we start a lawsuit?”
“The families are very confused,” says William Wang, a lawyer with the Chicago based firm Ribbeck Law. “Most of them don’t know what to do next.”
Mr. Wang, who headed for Beijing as soon as he heard that the plane had disappeared, says he has offered his firm’s services to the relatives of more than 100 passengers on a “no win, no fee” contingency basis, and that about 10 have signed up with Ribbeck.
His firm has moved fast, taking the first step toward a lawsuit on Tuesday, when it filed a petition with a Chicago court seeking evidence regarding the plane's maintenance and operation from Malaysia Airlines and Boeing, the manufacturer of the aircraft, on behalf of the father of an Indonesian passenger.
Other lawyers advocate a slower approach. “Relatives should be in no hurry to sue anybody,” argues Hao Junbo, one of the few Chinese lawyers to have litigated an aviation disaster case in a Chinese court. “They should wait for a clearer picture of what happened.”
If such a picture emerges, it would help identify potential defendants, says Ms. Feng. They could include the airline, the aircraft manufacturer, companies who made parts of the plane, maintenance contractors, Malaysian air traffic controllers, and officials responsible for security at Kuala Lumpur airport, she says, depending on what the cause of the presumed crash is found to be.
Equally complex is the question of where any suit against Malaysia Airlines may be heard (though a complaint against Boeing, an American company, would most likely be heard in the United States). While a Malaysian or Chinese court might seem the obvious place, lawyers for potential plaintiffs would be anxious to have any complaint judged in the United States, because “you are looking at a much larger award” there, says Ms. Feng.
“US juries and the legal system are much more generous and supportive of victims” than those in other countries, she points out.
The largest personal injury award in an aviation case by a Chinese court was about $250,000, according to Zhang Qihuai, deputy head of the Chinese Aviation Law Association. In America, awards in such cases have been as high as $10 million. “American courts are slower than Chinese ones, but compensation is much higher,” Mr. Zhang adds.
Chinese plaintiffs would certainly not want the case heard in Malaysia, says Mr. Hao. “Malaysia Airlines is a state owned company and families here have lost confidence in the Malaysian government” because of the contradictory nature of the information it has released since the plane’s disappearance, he explains. “They are concerned that a Malaysian court would not be independent.”
Though it would not be easy to keep a case against Malaysia Airlines in a US court, Feng suggests, it would not be impossible. Ribbeck lawyers argued in their petition that a Chicago court could hear it because Malaysia Airlines operates flights from Kuala Lumpur to the United States, and does business in the US.
Such legal niceties mean little to the Chinese victims’ relatives, unfamiliar with the complexities of international law. “It is quite a culture shock for them,” says Feng, who was brought up in China before moving to the United States. “They have a typical Chinese reaction; they want to resort to the government to apply pressure for compensation and they are only gradually realizing that they need lawyers.”
Most of the Chinese relatives, though, are still cautious about hiring an attorney, adds Wang. “They are waiting and watching,” he says. “They want to know where the plane is first. Only then will they think about compensation.”