Settlement or trial, Boeing must respond to Justice Department offer: News

The American aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which has been struggling for several months to untangle its many problems, is preparing to take a crucial step in the criminal case linked to the 2018 and 2019 crashes that left 346 people dead.

The aircraft manufacturer received a proposal last week from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which promised to return “no later than July 7” to federal judge Reed O’Connor, who is handling the case in a court in Texas (south).

The aircraft manufacturer was due to indicate on Friday whether it would accept this proposal, according to several sources.

“All I can tell you is that when we met with the DOJ, we were told that Boeing had until ‘the end of the week’ to make a decision,” Robert Clifford of Clifford Law, a lawyer for families of victims of the 2018 and 2019 crashes, told AFP on Friday.

“I guess that means before the end of the day” Friday, he added, “but I’m sure if they asked, they would give them until Sunday.”

“The offer made to Boeing by the DOJ is to plead guilty to an ongoing criminal charge (filed in 2021) for conspiracy to defraud the FAA,” the US aviation regulator, Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah and a lawyer for families in this criminal aspect, told AFP.

According to information that has leaked in recent days, it includes a fine of 243 million dollars, the appointment of an independent supervisor for three years and a guilty plea to fraud.

Boeing must now choose its trajectory: accept this agreement – which the judge can refuse to validate but whose terms he cannot change – or risk a long criminal trial with an uncertain outcome. Because it seems very unlikely that it will be able to escape either of these two options.

Relatives of victims and their lawyers were informed of the offer during a two-hour meeting with ministry officials on Sunday.

“The families will vigorously oppose this deal,” Mr Cassell warned.

Neither the ministry nor Boeing have commented.

The case has resurfaced after a series of production and quality control problems, affecting, since the beginning of 2023, three of the four Boeing commercial aircraft currently on the market (737, 787 Dreamliner and 777).

– Serial problems –

And, above all, after an in-flight incident on January 5 on an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9.

Among other consequences, this black series led the ministry to conclude in mid-May that Boeing had not respected its commitments provided for in a 58-page deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), concluded on January 7, 2021. Something the aircraft manufacturer continues to refute.

The aeronautics giant had admitted to committing fraud during the certification of the 737 MAX 8, which was involved in the two fatal accidents. All 737 MAXs were grounded for twenty months in the United States and around the world.

Under the deal, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion and pledged, among other things, to strengthen its compliance program. It also provided for a three-year probation period, at the end of which the charges could be dropped if the company met certain conditions.

But audits and investigations launched after the January 5 incident identified non-compliance issues and gaps in the group’s quality control.

The victims’ families have been up in arms against this arrangement from the start, loudly demanding a trial and conviction of Boeing.

“It’s more attractive to the DOJ to get the certainty of a plea deal than to go to trial,” Tracy Brammeier of Clifford Law Firm, which represents families in the civil case, told AFP.

According to her, the latter are particularly unhappy with the absence of an explicit causal link between the fraud acknowledged by Boeing and the crashes.

For John Coffee, a professor at Columbia University, an out-of-court settlement would have the advantage for both parties of “avoiding a humiliating defeat and being quick.”

But in such cases, “the general public often comes out of it feeling the shortchanged,” he noted in a blog earlier this week.

In addition to the difficulties arising from a criminal trial, a conviction could also deprive the aircraft manufacturer of lucrative government and military contracts, which generated a third of its turnover in 2023.

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