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US court grapples with jurisdiction question in Swissair disaster case

A court in the United States has begun addressing a crucial issue in the legal wrangle between Swissair and the families of the victims of the crash of Swissair flight 111 in September 1998.

A judge in Philadelphia has to decide whether the courts in the US can address the claims of European families. The stakes are high, as US courts are typically more generous in awarding damages than European courts.

All 229 people on board died when the aircraft crashed near Halifax off the coast of Canada on a flight from New York to Geneva. The cause of the crash is still not known.

Swissair said the judge would be basing his decision partly on evidence from the settlements the airline has been negotiating with US and European families.

“He asked to study 15 cases, and then he chose 10 cases from European families and five cases from US families,” said Swissair spokesman, Urs-Peter Naef. “He wanted to see how both parties work on the settlements, how they talk to each other and what each side expects.”

The judge will also have to consider whether a bill passed into law by President Clinton two weeks ago can be applied in this case. The new law retrospectively extends US jurisdiction over air accidents at sea from the internationally accepted three nautical miles from the coast to 12.

Flight SR-111 came down 11 miles off shore, but Swissair maintains the law is irrelevant in this case, not least because the aircraft crashed off the Canadian and not the US coast.

“Our lawyers, and the lawyers of our insurance companies, say they do not agree that we have to consider this act with the 12 nautical miles. They will insist on the three nautical miles, which makes it necessary for the judge to decide,” Naef said.

He added that many claims had already been settled out of court. As of Tuesday, he said, 186 claims for damages had been filed and Swissair had settled 54 cases.

Under the Warsaw Convention governing airlines’ responsibilities in case of an accident, families lose their right to ask for damages if they have not filed a claim within two years. That gives families of the SR-111 victims until September 2.

The Philadelphia judge’s ruling is expected on August 31, and it is likely there will be a flurry of activity by lawyers before the deadline, when it becomes clear whether their clients’ cases will be heard in the US or in Switzerland.

by Malcolm Shearmur

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR