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Skyguide pursued through US courts

The mid-air collision over southern Germany left 71 people dead

(Keystone)

Switzerland's air traffic control agency is facing possible legal action in the United States following July's mid-air plane crash over southern Germany.

Lawyers representing the relatives of 40 Russian victims said they would be seeking "many millions of dollars" in compensation.

The collision between a Russian passenger plane and a cargo jet belonging to the DHL courier company occurred in Swiss-controlled air space. It left 71 people dead including 52 Russian schoolchildren who had been en route to a UNESCO conference in Barcelona.

Although official investigations have not yet been completed, much attention has been focused on apparently contradictory instructions given to the two pilots by a single air traffic control operator at the Skyguide's Zurich base.

The Berlin-based class-action specialist Michael Witti told swissinfo on Tuesday that a US court would be the fairest option for his clients, since "America has a much more friendly law for victims".

"The victims' families are not just looking for money, though," he added. "They want to see greater security and to know that they are being treated properly and in the same way as victims from America or western Europe would be treated."

The American connection

But because Skyguide has no US connections, Witti admitted that he was having to take an indirect approach - filing his complaint against DHL and Honeywell, the American manufacturer of the anti-collision warning system installed on both planes.

"If we can make a case against these two companies in the US, then they in turn are sure to bring in Skyguide," reckoned Witti. "We are not taking the position that this will definitely work but in the global environment of class actions, you have to look for a way to the US courts."

The move has, however, been viewed with scepticism by some who say the US-link may prove to be too weak to be taken-up by the courts.

"There are precedents to foreign aircrashes being brought to the US, but there has to be some connection to the US," Doug Latto, an American airline litigation specialist told swissinfo.

"And if the warning system is found to have been working properly, it'll be difficult to maintain the lawsuit," Latto explains.

"It'll also be argued that the case should take place either in Switzerland, Germany or Russia, [because that's where the passengers and the evidence] were located."

Bad timing

Witti and his Hamburg-based colleague Gerrit Wilmans said they had chosen to hold a press conference at this early stage of proceedings because all attempts to communicate with Skyguide had been rebuffed.

"We tried to get access to them just for the purposes of information, but they turned us down," Witti said. "As the representatives of 40 families we are astonished that they won't even hold a conversation with us."

Responding to Witti's comments, Skyguide insisted, however, that now was not the right time for the two parties to discuss their differences. Spokesman Patrick Herr also said that the company would not be drawn into speculation before the completion of the official inquiries into the crash.

"We understand that the people in Russia might want to get this all over with quickly," Herr told swissinfo, "but the serious nature of the accident and the complexity of the investigations prevent that from happening.

"A few days after the crash, when we posted a message on our website expressing our sympathies for the families, we were inundated with calls from people saying that we were admitting liability, so you can see that we have to be very careful in how we communicate with the families and their lawyers."

Herr added that the German investigation into the crash was not likely to be completed before the summer of 2003, ensuring a lengthy wait for both parties.

With Skyguide 99 per cent owned by the Swiss government, Witti seems to think that a possible appearance in the US courts could make that wait worthwhile.

"It's certainly helpful that effectively we're dealing with the Swiss state, because it means their pockets are that much deeper," Witti reckoned.

"Legally, it's a different entity but effectively Skyguide is Switzerland and the Swiss will understand that this case has a political aspect to it and that's it better to get it off the table."

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

In brief

The Swiss air traffic controller, Skyguide, is facing the threat of legal action in the US, following last summer's mid-air collision in its air space.

German lawyers representing the families of the 40 Russian victims are seeking "many millions" in compensation.

They are predicting a protracted lawsuit, as German authorities are unlikely to complete their investigations into the crash before mid-2003.

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