A federal judge has opened a new chapter in the legal saga surrounding the crash of two Boeing 737 Max planes in 2018 and 2019, which killed a total of 346 passengers.
A U.S. District Court ruled Friday that those killed are considered crime victims under federal law and that the Department of Justice violated their rights when it failed to inform their surviving family members that is was negotiating a $2.5 billion settlement with Boeing.
The DOJ settlement effectively closed the door on future legal challenges by granting Boeing immunity from criminal prosecution if Boeing met its terms.
Now the attorney for 15 families of victims is arguing that the federal government should invalidate the deal and give families another opportunity to pursue criminal charges.
"It's our position that because the Justice Department entered into this agreement by not conferring with the victims, the proper remedy is to invalidate the parts of the deal that give Boeing immunity," attorney Paul Cassell told Cheddar.
For background, a federal probe determined that Boeing had misled regulators about the safety of the 737 MAX's flight-control system. Rather than plead guilty to these charges, Boeing struck a deal giving it immunity if it met the agency's terms over a three year period.
O'Connor ruled that the agency violated families' rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act when it secretly entered into this kind of deferred prosecution agreement.
It's unclear if the remedy for this violation will be a full invalidation of the deal, but that will certainly be Cassell's argument in a filing due this Friday.
"The way we see things playing out now is that we will ask for a rescission of the immunity provision," he said. "Then at that point, the victims' families could go to the Justice Department and ask to have Boeing prosecuted."
What could that mean for Boeing? "Punishing a corporation is always an interesting question, because you can't send a corporation to prison," said Cassell. "But I think there are a couple of consequences that immediately come to mind."
These include additional criminal fines and putting the company on a kind of probation that would allow the federal government to more closely monitor its operations.
This is the second blow to the high-profile settlement. O'Connor also ruled in July that families could move forward with their challenges against the company if they could prove they were "directly and proximately harmed as a result of the commission of a federal offense."
Boeing declined a request for comment.