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Judge rejects Swissair Flight 111 claims

Family members of the victims near the crash site

(Keystone Archive)

A US judge has dismissed claims for punitive damages against Swissair stemming from the crash of Flight 111 off Nova Scotia in 1998.

The aircraft, which was on route from New York to Geneva, crashed into the sea killing all 215 passengers and 14 crew members on board.

In two rulings, US district judge James Giles said 224 lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the disaster fell under the Death on the High Seas Act and the Warsaw Convention and were not entitled to punitive damages. These are damages awarded in a lawsuit as punishment for malicious, evil or particularly fraudulent acts.

The rulings mean plaintiffs are only entitled to compensation for death, injury and losses associated with income and medical costs.

The lawsuits initially sought a total of SFr27 billion ($16 billion) in punitive damages. All but 20 cases have already been settled and will not be affected by the ruling, lawyers for both sides said.

Pressure to settle case

"The judge was very smart," said Desmond Barry, a lawyer acting for Swissair, its parent company SAirGroup, and other defendants. "He held off publishing his opinions so there was pressure on both sides to settle the cases, not knowing which way he was going to roll.

Rainer Meier, head of Swissair corporate communications, welcomed the court's decision but said the airline still had to finalise the outstanding claims.

"Of course we appreciate this decision which prevents us from paying punitive damages," Meier told swissinfo.

"We did very good work with our lawyers and found good solutions [for] the majority of the claims, and we'll try to settle these last 20 [out of 224] claims," he said.

Meier refused to reveal the size of the settlements.

"We have never commented on figures and amounts and we will not do so now."

Possible appeal

A spokeswoman for the plaintiffs said they were considering whether to appeal the judge's decision.

The plaintiffs had argued that the Death on the High Seas Act did not apply because the crash occurred in Canadian waters. However, the judge said federal courts had previously applied the act to cases involving accidents in another country's territorial waters.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of more than 140 passengers blamed the disaster on a fire allegedly caused by faulty wiring on board the aircraft. Last year, Canadian investigators probing the crash called for tougher tests on the electrical wiring used in commercial planes.

Pilots reported smoke in the cockpit 53 minutes after leaving Kennedy airport. The plane's electrical systems began failing around 15 minutes later and the plane plunged into the sea.

swissinfo with agencies

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