FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Boeing representatives and relatives of some of the passengers killed in two crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets will meet face-to-face in a Texas courtroom Thursday, where the aerospace giant will be arraigned on a criminal charge that it thought it had settled two years ago.
In a brief filed Wednesday, lawyers for the families accused Boeing of committing “the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history.” The family members were never consulted before Boeing cut a deal with the U.S. Justice Department to avoid prosecution on a felony charge of fraud. Up to a dozen or so people from several countries are expected to testify about how the loss of loved ones has affected them.
Boeing on Thursday pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Relatives of the passengers are expected to ask the court to impose conditions on Boeing much as it would on any criminal defendant. The families said in their Wednesday filing that those conditions should include a court-picked monitor to evaluate whether Boeing is creating a culture of safety and ethics — as it promised the government — and that its steps to do so be made public.
Boeing has faced civil lawsuits, congressional investigations and massive damage to its business since the crashes in 2018 and 2019, which killed a combined total of 346 people. Boeing and its top officials have avoided criminal prosecution, however, because of the settlement reached between the company and the government in January 2021.
Boeing was charged with a single count of defrauding the United States to get regulators to approve the Max jet. But the outgoing Trump administration’s Justice Department agreed to defer prosecution and drop the charge if Boeing paid $2.5 billion — mostly to airlines, but including a $243.6 million fine — and commit no other crimes for three years.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ordered Boeing to be arraigned after finding that the Justice Department violated a victims-rights law by not telling the families about secret negotiations with Boeing. He has not ruled on a separate issue of whether Boeing should lose its immunity from prosecution.
Paul Cassell, a lawyer representing the families, said he hopes Thursday’s testimony by relatives will convince the Justice Department to throw out the settlement.
The Biden administration’s Justice Department did not oppose an arraignment, but it continues to agree with Boeing that the settlement should stand. In a court filing last November, the department said that without the settlement, the government would lose its ability to ensure that Boeing follows through with reforms designed to prevent future tragedies.
The first Max passenger flight was in 2017. The first crash occurred in October 2018 in Indonesia and was followed by another in March 2019 in Ethiopia.
Before both crashes, an automated flight-control system that Boeing did not initially disclose to airlines and pilots pushed the nose down based on a faulty sensor reading. Boeing blamed two former employees for misleading the Federal Aviation Administration about the system, known by its acronym, MCAS.
One of those former employees, a test pilot, is the only person prosecuted in connection with the Max. A jury in Judge O’Connor’s courtroom found him not guilty last year.