By Casey Sullivan, Dan Levine and Sarah McBride
NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Families of the three passengers who died when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed in San Francisco this month have retained the prominent New York law firm Kreindler & Kreindler to represent them as legal maneuvering over liability and damages heats up.
Kreindler & Kreindler, which specializes in aviation law, made a name for itself representing victims in catastrophic air disasters, including the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Partner Jim Kreindler confirmed in an interview late Wednesday that he would handle the cases of the three Chinese teenagers who died, as well as 12 injury cases involving U.S., Chinese and Korean residents. He said he intends to file lawsuits in the coming weeks.
Dozens were seriously injured in the crash of Asiana Flight 214, which had 307 people aboard when it hit a seawall in front of the runway, lost its tail and caught fire after skidding to a halt.
Kreindler's clients include the family of Ye Meng Yuan, who survived the crash but died after being run over by a fire truck. Kreindler sent a letter to the San Francisco Fire Department on Wednesday requesting documents, videotapes, photographs and other evidence related to the department's response to the crash.
A spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney declined to comment on the law firm's request.
Meanwhile, South Korea-based Asiana is marshaling its own legal resources, hiring Frank Silane, a complex litigation specialist at the Los Angeles firm Condon & Forsyth.
Advising a team of about 70 airline employees, Silane helped Asiana coordinate payments for medical expenses, hotel rooms and car rental for the dazed survivors. In an interview last week, he called it a "humanitarian response."
Some plaintiff attorneys are warning passengers not to let Asiana's post-crash assistance go to their heads.
"My concern is that it's used as a PR opportunity to send the message that we're nice people, you can deal with us, and to start to lay the foundation that they don't need a lawyer," said Frank Pitre, a California attorney who represents two passengers. He said he has been contacted by about two dozen.
Silane declined to disclose how much Asiana has paid passengers in the aftermath of the crash. Plaintiff lawyers and one passenger contacted by Reuters say the airline has not yet proposed any formal legal settlements. At least one lawsuit has already been filed in the wake of the crash.
Asiana passenger Eugene Rah said Asiana paid for one week of car rental but not a second.
"I don't think they are doing anything aggressive," Rah said. "I think they are being cautious and careful."
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Attorneys cannot contact victims until 45 days after a plane crash. A law requiring the waiting period was enacted in 1996, to prohibit lawyers from immediately descending on crash victims.
Following the Asiana crash, the National Transportation Safety Board circulated an email to plaintiff attorneys threatening a State Bar referral for any lawyers who acted too quickly.
The law doesn't prevent passengers from acting on their own to seek out attorneys, and many already have. As of last week, Asiana's Silane said he had been contacted by roughly seven attorneys who said they would sue in the near future.
"There is going to be a lot more," Silane said, "and we know that they have multiple passengers."
Once litigation gets underway, plaintiff attorneys expect the airline to move as many claims as possible out of U.S. courts, where judgments tend to be much higher.
To do that, lawyers said Asiana will likely argue that an international aviation treaty called the Montreal Convention disqualifies certain passengers from bringing a lawsuit in the United States. According to the treaty, only passengers who are permanent U.S. residents, purchased tickets in the United States, or were flying to the United States as a final destination may sue Asiana in the country.
It was not immediately clear how many passengers fell into those categories. The people onboard the flight included 141 Chinese passengers, 77 South Koreans and 64 Americans, according to an Asiana spokeswoman. The other passengers came from a variety of other countries, he said.
Under the treaty, Asiana is automatically liable for about $150,000 in damages per injured passenger, lawyers said. But passengers could recover more if they show the airline was at fault, they said.
If non-U.S. citizens can't sue Asiana in the United States, they could try to file lawsuits against third-party U.S.-based companies, such as Boeing, that may have contributed to the crash.
Kreindler said that his cases will largely target Boeing as the primary defendant.
A Boeing spokesman declined to comment on potential litigation.
At the time of the crash, an airport instrument landing system called glide path was out of service. That could make the airport a target for litigation, said lawyer Michael Danko, who is representing a separate group of crash victims.
Potential plaintiffs, such as Ye's family, must jump through hoops to successfully sue a government entity like the San Francisco Fire Department. To recover damages, they must show that the department didn't follow specific protocols.
Silane declined to comment on Asiana's legal strategy. The airline also declined to comment.
Asiana said it is covered by LIG Insurance, a Korean firm. Korean authorities have said the airline carries over $2 billion in coverage.
The NTSB, charged with investigating the crash, expects to issue its report in about a year.
(Reporting by Casey Sullivan in New York and Sarah McBride and Dan Levine in San Francisco.; Additional reporting by Gerry Shih.; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Stacey Joyce)