WASHINGTON (AP) — The families of victims killed last year when a suicidal pilot flew an airliner into a mountainside in the French Alps filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. flight school where the pilot was trained, alleging the school failed to properly screen his medical background.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix against the Airline Training Center of Arizona. It's owned by Lufthansa, which is also the parent company of Germanwings, a regional Europe carrier that employed pilot Andreas Lubitz.
On March 24, 2015, Lubitz locked Germanwings Flight 9525's captain out of the cockpit and deliberately set the plane on a collision course with the mountainside. All 150 people aboard, including Lubitz, were killed.
While training in Europe with Lufthansa, Lubitz had been suspended from his academic course work for nearly 10 months while he sought treatment for depression. In 2010, after returning to Lufthansa with letters from his doctors that he was no longer depressed or taking medication, he was sent to the U.S. for flight training.
German authorities had twice turned down applications from Lubitz for a pilot medical certificate because of his history of depression before issuing him a medical certificate in July 2009 that included a restriction stating it would become invalid if he had a relapse, the suit said.
Had the Arizona school screened Lubitz, the restriction on his German medical certificate would have tipped officials that he'd been previously hospitalized for severe depression and treated with medications that would have prohibited him from flying, according to the suit, which was filed on behalf of more than 80 families.
The school's flight instructors also failed to monitor Lubitz for signs of any mental disorder that would disqualify him from becoming a pilot, and when those signs did occur, failed to disqualify him from becoming a pilot, the suit said. The suit doesn't provide details of those signs.
The school was "one of the most important gateways or checkpoints in Lubitz's desire to become a Lufthansa commercial pilot," said attorney Brian Alexander of the New York law firm Kreindler & Kreindler, which represents the families.
The flight school's president, Matthias Kippenberg, and Lufthansa didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The school requires that its pilots have two medical certificates, one from German authorities and one from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the suit said. A copy of Lubitz's FAA medical certificate application shows he checked "no" when asked if he'd been treated for any mental disorders, and he failed to list doctors who had treated him on the application form as required.
A medical examiner working for the FAA in Germany filed a new application correcting the discrepancy, with an explanation that he had been found fit to fly. The FAA withheld granting a medical certificate until the agency received a letter from Lubitz's doctor saying he had recovered and was no longer taking medications. When the certificate was granted, it was with the condition that it would no longer be valid if Lubitz' experienced a relapse.
"Lubitz's particular history of depression and mental instability made him a suicide time bomb, triggered to go off under the ordinary stresses of life, particularly the kind of stresses a commercial pilot routinely faces," said Marc S. Moller, another attorney representing the families. It's well known that cases of depression frequently recur, although when they will recur is unpredictable, he said.
The lawsuit asks for damages, but doesn't specify an amount. Lufthansa has offered 25,000 euros for each victim plus 10,000 euros to each of the victims' immediate relatives. That's nearly $40,000 at current exchange rates. The law in Germany, where almost half the people on the flight came from, doesn't currently consider the deceased's future earnings and the emotional impact on families when calculating how much money relatives are entitled to. So if the lawsuit is successful, the families may win a larger judgment in the U.S.
Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.
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