A French court acquits Air France and Airbus over the Rio Paris crash

PARIS (Reuters) – A French court on Monday acquitted European planemaker Airbus (AIR.PA) and Air France (AIRF.PA) of “manslaughter,” upsetting the families of some of the 228 people killed when a passenger jet disappeared. Atlantic storm nearly 14 years ago.

The ruling follows a historic public trial over the crash of AF447 in complete darkness en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009, and ends a battle between families to determine criminal responsibility for France’s worst air disaster.

Announcing the ruling, Paris judge Sylvie Donis listed four acts of negligence on the part of Airbus and one by Air France, but told a packed courtroom that these were not sufficient under French criminal law to establish a definitive link to the loss of the A330.

“A possible causal link is not sufficient to describe a crime,” the judge said in her 30-minute ruling marking the end of France’s first ever manslaughter trial.

She said the two companies, however, remain civilly liable to repair the damages caused by the accident and a new hearing is scheduled for September 4 on some of the outstanding claims.

The families greeted the verdict in near silence after a sometimes stormy nine-week trial held late last year.

“Those who lost us died for the second time. I feel sick,” said Claire Doroso, who lost her niece in the crash.

The president of the Home Association of Families said they were “ashamed and confused” by the ruling, which has followed a “messy” legal trajectory that has spanned more than a decade.

“The loser is first and foremost French justice,” Daniel Lamy, president of the AF447 Victims’ Association, told reporters at the Paris court.

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Both companies have pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum fine of 225,000 euros ($246,000). Sources say there are some settlements for undisclosed amounts.

In separate statements following the ruling, both airlines expressed sympathy for the relatives and said they remained fully committed to aviation safety.

civil claims

The AF447 disaster was among the most widely discussed in aviation and led to a number of technical and training changes.

After searching for two years for the black boxes of the A330 using remote submersibles, French civilian investigators found that the pilots responded clumsily to a problem with the icy speed sensors and plunged into free fall without responding to stop alerts.

But the experience also highlighted previous discussions between Air France and Airbus about growing problems with external “bitot sensors” that generate speed readings.

The trial focused on whether Airbus had responded too slowly to the increasing number of speeding incidents and whether the airline had done enough to ensure that pilots were adequately trained.

But after nine weeks of sometimes heated evidence, the same prosecutors concluded there wasn’t enough information to establish culpability.

The ruling is the latest development in a case that was initially only pursued against Air France, before it was dropped entirely by investigating judges, and eventually the two airlines ended up facing charges after appeals from families and pilots’ unions.

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On Monday, the judge ruled that Airbus was negligent by failing to request a replacement before the accident of the type of speedometer implicated in earlier concerns, and by failing to understand a broader pattern of risk by combining multiple airline reports.

The cockpit display also failed to give the pilots the same details of the alerts that were sent to the ground engineers.

Those scraps of coded letters were the only indication of the cause of the accident until the wreckage was found two years later, when the pilots’ actions also took center stage.

The judge also found that Air France was negligent in failing to update its pilots’ awareness of previous incidents, which could improve AF447’s chances of survival.

But the question of “causation” proved to be a major hurdle to criminal charges, according to the ruling, to the apparent disappointment of the lawyers who moved forward with the trial.

“We told Air France that Airbus is responsible but we are not guilty. We were waiting for word of guilt,” said the families’ lawyer, Alan Jakubowicz.

(Covering) by Tim Hever and Juliet Jabkeru; Editing by Tassilo Hamill

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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