Boeing must Publicly Face Fraud Charge in 737 Max Deaths, Judge Says

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Families of those killed in the March 2019 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Ethiopia hold a vigil in front of the Transportation Department in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2019.

A federal judge ordered Boeing to appear in a Texas court next week for a formal arraignment on a charge that it conspired to defraud the United States over the safety of its 737 Max jets.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that representatives of those killed on Max planes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 will be allowed to be heard during the Jan. 26 proceeding and that Boeing “has no right to waive its appearance.”

“This is a real blow in favor of evenhanded justice,” said Paul G. Cassell, a University of Utah law professor who is representing families of those killed in two crashes that happened after a flawed automated system forced the jets’ noses down, overwhelming pilots and killing a total 346 people.

Boeing declined to comment. The Justice Department, which voiced support for the victims’ request in a November court filing, also declined to comment.

The Justice Department initially had opposed holding such a formal reading of the charge against Boeing in court, saying families of the victims were not considered crime victims under federal law and could not ask a judge for such an arraignment to be held.

O’Connor subsequently ruled last year that the rights of those killed in the crashes had been violated. The Justice Department had reached a deferred prosecution agreement with Boeing without first conferring with the victims, in this case their survivors, as required under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, the judge said.

Under the deferred prosecution agreement, signed on Jan. 6, 2021, Boeing admitted to defrauding the United States, in part for a statement an employee made to the Federal Aviation Administration falsely characterizing the power of an automated flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. That charge would eventually be dropped if the company met certain conditions over more than three years, according to the agreement.

The families of those killed have also asked O’Connor to rule that the agreement, since it was forged in violation of a key victims rights law, should have central provisions thrown out so Boeing can be prosecuted for its actions ahead of the crashes.

O’Connor has not yet ruled on that motion, which is opposed by the Justice Department and Boeing.

For next week’s arraignment, the judge noted that the families had been seeking “to enforce their rights to attend and be heard regarding conditions of release at Boeing’s public arraignment.” In this case, Boeing’s conditions for release are tied up in the deferred prosecution agreement, which is being disputed by the victims’ families. O’Connor said federal law and rules of criminal procedure “require this Court to publicly arraign Boeing and permit the crime victims’ representatives to be heard at or in advance of the proceeding.” He ordered victims to notify the court if they plan to testify.

Cassell said some families are preparing to make the trip to Fort Worth next week.

“We are glad they will be actually brought to an open court” to face the charge, said Michael Stumo, who’s daughter was killed on the plane in Ethiopia. Though he said his bigger priority is seeing Boeing prosecuted, he said that “I am also happy that we and other victims’ family members will be able to finally address the court on what Boeing’s criminal conspiracy to defraud the FAA and cause the death of hundreds, including my daughter Samya Rose Stumo, cost us.”