Mon December 6, 2010

French Court Convicts Continental In Concorde Crash

A French judge on Monday found Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the decade-old crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people.

The court ordered Houston-based Continental to pay Air France $1.43 million for moral damages and damage to the French carrier's reputation, plus an additional fine of about $265,000. Legal experts say there could be more costs in store for Continental should Air France go ahead with a lawsuit to try to recover $150 million that it paid to families of the victims.

The mechanic, John Taylor, was given a 15-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to jointly pay more than $360,000 in damages to different civil parties. He also was fined $2,650.

All other defendants -- including three former French officials and Taylor's now-retired supervisor, Stanley Ford -- were acquitted.

The ruling supports an earlier report by French accident investigators who concluded that a titanium strip fell off a Continental DC-10 on the runway at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000. The Concorde hit the debris during takeoff, bursting into flames after a punctured tire propelled bits of rubber into the fuel tanks. The plane then slammed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 people aboard and four others on the ground.

The court said Taylor should not have used superstrong titanium, a harder metal than usual, to build the piece, known as a wear strip, for the DC-10. He was also accused of improperly installing the part.

Continental's defense lawyer, Olivier Metzner, denounced the court's decision as "patriotic" for sparing the French defendants and convicting only the Americans. He confirmed that the carrier would appeal the verdict.

"This is a ruling that protects only the interests of France. This has strayed far from the truth of law and justice," Metzner said. "This has privileged purely national interests."

Continental spokesman Nick Britton echoed that sentiment, saying in a statement that the airline disagreed with the "absurd finding" against it and Taylor.

Taylor's lawyer, Francois Esclatine, said his client also would appeal the verdict. "I don't understand how my client could be considered to have sole responsibility for the Concorde crash," he told French iTele television.

Taylor, who has worked for Continental for two decades, told The Associated Press, "I don't think I did the work" installing the wear strip.

He said the case has "destroyed" his life and that it has prevented him from gaining citizenship in the U.S., where he has lived since age 3. Taylor is a Danish citizen with permanent U.S. residency status.

Ronald Schmid, a lawyer who has represented several families of the German victims, said he was "skeptical" about the ruling. "It bothers me that none of those responsible for Air France were sitting in the docks," he told The Associated Press by phone from Frankfurt.

The families of most victims were compensated years ago, so the main goal was to assign responsibility, rather than decide financial claims.

France's aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been foreseen, but a judicial inquiry said the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and that officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.

Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty and a pilots union, said the verdict was "incomprehensible."

"This trial made clear that the Concorde, this superb plane, suffered from severe technical insufficiencies, problems with the fuel tanks that were known since '79," he said outside the courtroom in the town of Pontoise.

The prosecution requested a two-year suspended sentence for Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at former plane maker Aerospatiale. It argued for acquitting French engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France's civil aviation authority.

The fiery accident effectively ended the era of supersonic passenger flight by hastening the retirement of the world's only faster-than-sound commercial jetliner. The Concorde, an aviation icon that shuttled passengers willing to pay its steep ticket price across the Atlantic, routinely made flights in a few hours at Mach 2. It went into service in 1976 and was officially retired in 2003.

Continental is now part of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., which was formed in October as the holding company owner of United and Continental airlines, which will eventually be combined into a single airline.

With reporting for NPR by Anita Elash and Frank Browning in Paris. Material from The Associated Press was also used in this story. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.