American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on November 12, 2001, near Belle Harbor, NY, shortly after the Airbus 300-600 suffered an in-flight structural separation of the vertical stabilizer and rudder. The scheduled flight carrying 251 passengers and nine crew members had taken off a few minutes before the crash from New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport with a planned destination of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. All 260 people on board were killed in the crash as well as five persons on the ground. Ladd Sanger and I represented the families of 24 passengers.
Details about the Crash
- The failure sequence occurred after AA 587 passed through the wake turbulence of a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747, which had just taken off from the same runway at JFK.
- After AA 587 encountered the wake turbulence, the vertical stabilizer and rudder separated from the Airbus airframe, followed by separation of the aircraft’s two engines.
- The aircraft then crashed and burned in the Belle Harbor neighborhood near Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY.
- The vertical stabilizer and rudder assembly were recovered from Jamaica Bay, which is about one mile from where the main aircraft wreckage impacted the ground.
Multi-district Litigation (MDL)
Numerous lawsuits were filed against American Airlines and Airbus, with all of the cases filed in United States federal district courts being transferred to Judge Robert W. Sweet, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, according to the federal Multi-district Litigation (MDL), i.e. MDL-1448.
In the resulting litigation, American Airlines alleged that the Airbus airframe did not meet applicable standards and that the vertical stabilizer and rudder should not have failed under the types of loads imposed by flight crew rudder inputs. Airbus alleged that the pilot making rudder inputs at the moment of the wake turbulence encounter imposed excessive and unwarranted static forces on the vertical stabilizer and rudder.
Most of the focus in the litigation was on the static forces imposed on the vertical tail structure; however, evidence was developed during discovery of Airbus structural engineers of a potential dynamic loading scenario that was capable of generating destructive forces depending upon the frequency of the pilot’s successive rudder inputs.
A key factor in the litigation was Judge Sweet’s determination that admiralty law should apply to the damages and losses suffered by the passengers. As a result of his efforts during the briefing of the issues before Judge Sweet, firm partner Ladd Sanger published an article entitled, “Flying and Crashing on the Wings of Fortuosity: The Case for Applying Admiralty Jurisdiction to Aviation Accidents Over Navigable Waters” that discussed the application of admiralty law in aviation cases.
Outcome and Settlement
None of the cases filed on behalf of passengers or ground victims went to trial. All cases ultimately settled for confidential amounts, with both American Airlines and Airbus making contributions to the settlement funds.
In this airline litigation, Ladd and I were appointed to the MDL-1448 Plaintiff’s Steering Committee by Judge Sweet. The firm represented the families of 24 passengers. All of the firm’s cases settled with American Airlines and Airbus for confidential amounts.