Continental Airlines Inc. and one of its mechanics were convicted in a French court of manslaughter Monday because debris from one of its planes caused the crash of an Air France Concorde jet that killed 113 people a decade ago.
The Houston-based airline was ordered to pay Air France 1.08 million euros ($1.43 million) for damaging its reputation, in addition to a fine of around 200,000 euros ($265,000). The victims of the crash were mostly German tourists.
The presiding judge confirmed investigators' long-held belief that titanium debris dropped by a Continental DC-10 onto the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport before the supersonic jet took off on July 25, 2000, was to blame. Investigators said the debris gashed the Concorde's tire, propelling bits of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.
The plane then slammed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 people aboard and four others on the ground.
Ronald Schmid, a lawyer who has represented several families of the German victims, said he was "skeptical" about the ruling.
"It bothers me that none of those responsible for Air France were sitting in the docks," he told The Associated Press by phone from Frankfurt.
The airline and mechanic, John Taylor, were also ordered to jointly pay more than 274,000 euros ($360,000) in damages to different civil parties.
Taylor was also handed a 15-month suspended prison sentence, and a 2,000-euro ($2,650) fine. All other defendants – including three former French officials and Taylor's now-retired supervisor Stanley Ford – were acquitted.
The court said Taylor should not have used titanium, a harder metal than usual, to build a piece for the DC-10 that is known as a wear strip. He was also accused of improperly installing the piece that fell onto the runway.
Continental's defense lawyer, Olivier Metzner, confirmed the carrier would appeal. He denounced a ruling that he called "patriotic" for sparing the French defendants and convicting only the Americans.
"This is a ruling that protects only the interests of France. This has strayed far from the truth of law and justice," he said. "This has privileged purely national interests.
Continental spokesman Nick Britton, in a statement, echoed that sentiment, and said the airline disagreed with the "absurd finding" against it and Taylor.
"Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties shows the determination of the
French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France," he said, noting that Air France was state-run at the time.
Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty and a pilots union, said the verdict was "incomprehensible" and asked why blame was heaped on Continental mechanics when French officials were aware of weaknesses on the Concorde around two decades before the crash.
"This trial made clear that the Concorde, this superb plane, suffered from severe technical insufficiencies, problems with the fuel tanks that were known since '79," he said outside the courtroom.
The fine delivered against Continental surpassed the euro 175,000 ($231,000) fine sought by a state prosecutor, who had requested 18-month suspended prison sentences for both Taylor and Ford.
The prosecution also requested a two-year suspended sentence for Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at former plane maker Aerospatiale. It argued for acquitting French engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France's civil aviation authority.
While France's aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been foreseen, a judicial inquiry said the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.
The families of most victims were compensated years ago, so financial claims were not the trial's focus – the main goal was to assign responsibility. It is not uncommon for such cases to take years to reach trial in France.
Continental is now part of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., which was formed in October as the holding company owner of United and Continental airlines, which will eventually be combined into a single airline.
In France, unlike in many other countries, plane crashes routinely lead to trials to assign criminal responsibility. It is common for cases to drag on for years.
In 2009, France's highest court finally confirmed the acquittal of all those originally accused of responsibility in an Air Inter crash that killed 87 people in 1992 – 17 years earlier.
Kirsten Grieshaber contributed to this report from Berlin.