One of the nation's deadliest airline disasters nearly five years ago is subject to general maritime laws, a judge has ruled, allowing potentially higher damages for dozens of people who sued.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Sweet ruled Tuesday the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 qualifies as a maritime disaster because a chunk of the aircraft sunk in "navigable waters," the crash could have affected maritime commerce, and the plane was on a transoceanic flight that "bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity."
The defendants contended that a plane must crash on high seas, far from land, to be subject to maritime laws.
The crash on a quiet residential block in the seaside Belle Harbor section of Queens killed 265 people - including five on the ground - on Nov. 12, 2001, at a time when the city was still reeling from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The plane had just taken off from John F. Kennedy International Airport for a flight to the Dominican Republic when a section of its tail tore away as the plane's pilot battled turbulence.
"There can be no question that, but for the development of air travel, this trip - or some portion thereof - would have been conducted by a waterborne vessel and that it therefore bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity," the judge wrote in his opinion.
Numerous lawsuits were filed, though all have been settled except for those involving eight passengers and three people killed on the ground and more than 20 cases involving injury or property damage on the ground.
Lawyers for the defendants - American Airlines, its Fort Worth, Texas-based parent, AMR Corp., and the plane's maker, Airbus Industrie G.I.E. - did not immediately return telephone messages Wednesday.
Robert Spragg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said a major benefit that maritime law provides is compensation for the loss of care, comfort and companionship that a victim would have provided.
"We're pleased with the outcome of the ruling," he said.
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