Lawsuits targeting airline industry expected over terrorist hijackings

By David Kravets Associated Press Writer
Friday September 14, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — With so many unanswered questions about the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, one fact is clear: There will be lawsuits targeting the airline industry following Tuesday’s hijacking of four passenger flights. 

Terrorism attacks have led to protracted legal action against airlines in the past. One example is the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. 

The suits from Tuesday’s hijackings may not come immediately as lawyers could decide to wait for the government’s investigation. But what the government learns, including who was behind the hijackings, will set the legal stage. 

“The critical issue is how these weapons got on the flight,” said Frank Pitre, a Burlingame attorney and aviation law expert. “Legally, security is a combined venture between the airport, security screening company at the airport and the airlines.” 

The four hijacked planes, two of which slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, one at the Pentagon and the fourth in a remote field outside Pittsburgh, carried 266 people. In all, thousands were feared dead. 

The lawsuits would most likely target American Airlines and United Airlines, the two carriers whose planes were hijacked, experts said. The airports and the security teams at Logan International Airport in Boston, Dulles International Airport in Washington and Newark International Airport in New Jersey may also be sued because that is where the ill-fated flights departed, these experts said. 

Other potential litigation targets include those who are found responsible. If they are associated with a government, that government could be sued and its assets that are in the United States could be frozen. 

That was the case in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, where a luggage bomb killed 270 people. Family members of the victims are seeking $2 billion from Libya for its alleged role in the plane’s explosion. Lawsuits against Pan Am led to its bankruptcy.