Facing an onslaught of lawsuits and a criminal investigation, Boeing announced Wednesday the appointment of a newly created czar to oversee all legal matters arising from two deadly crashes of 737 Max jetliners.
J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge who has served as Boeing’s general counsel since 2006, was named counselor and senior adviser to Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg and the company’s board of directors.
The move reflects the complex and potentially costly fallout stemming from the crashes, coming on the heels of statements indicating Boeing plans to take an aggressive stance in responding to civil allegations and any potential criminal accusations.
Boeing also has raised the possibility it might take the unusual step of asking that the lawsuits be thrown out of courts on its home turf in the United States and moved to foreign — and possibly more favorable — locales where the crashes occurred.
Boeing said Luttig will manage all legal matters related to the Lion Air crash off Indonesia in October and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in that country in March, in which a total of 346 people were killed, the Chicago-based company said in a news release.
He also will handle other “special matters,” Boeing said without elaborating.
“During his 13 years of service at Boeing, Judge Luttig has built the finest legal team in the world and delivered an unparalleled record of success for the company,” Muilenburg said.
Muilenburg staked out the company’s position in a tense news conference Monday after the company’s annual shareholder meeting, during which he defended the design and certification process for the MAX.
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In the case of the MAX, those processes certified as safe a new flight-control system that was triggered on both the Lion Air and Ethiopian crash flights by a single faulty sensor and then engaged repeatedly to push the nose of each airplane down. Boeing is flight testing a software redesign of this system — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.
Muilenburg said airplane accidents typically are due to “a chain of events,” that “it’s not correct to attribute that to any single item,” and pointed to actions by the pilots on the two flights, who he said did not completely follow the standard procedure.
Dozens of lawsuits seeking monetary damages have been filed against Boeing in U.S. courts, alleging negligence on the part of the company.
Lawyers in the Chicago and Seattle law offices of Perkins Coie have appeared as Boeing’s counsel in the lawsuits, signaling in court papers they may argue the cases should be held in the countries where the crashes occurred.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys fear that could mean monetary damages would be lower than typically awarded in U.S. courts.
Boeing is also facing a criminal investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section, which is looking into the design and certification process that led the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the MAX as safe.
Boeing has refused to discuss the investigation, amid speculation that it is being represented by the worldwide law firm Kirkland and Ellis.