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ABC News
ABC News

US judge orders Boeing to face felony charge in court over 737-MAX crashes

A US judge has ordered Boeing to face a felony charge in court stemming from crashes of two 737-MAX jets, a ruling that threatens to unravel an agreement the aviation giant negotiated to avoid prosecution.

The ruling by a federal judge in Texas came after relatives of some of the victims said the government violated their rights by reaching a settlement with Boeing without first notifying the families.

US District Court Judge Reed O'Connor ordered Boeing to send a representative to his courtroom in Fort Worth January 26 to hear the felony charge.

A Boeing spokesman said the company had no comment.

The US Justice Department, which did not oppose a public hearing but has fought against re-opening the settlement, also declined to comment.

The judge's ruling is a narrow one that does not guarantee Boeing will face prosecution.

That, however, remains the goal of lawyers for relatives of some of the 346 people killed in the 2018 and 2019 crashes.

One lawyer, Paul Cassell, said the Justice Department could stand by the settlement even after the hearing, at which passengers' relatives are expected to speak.

"But we believe this was such a rotten deal that … [the Justice Department] can and should, after hearing from the victims, re-do the deal," Mr Cassell said.

"They should be prosecuted."

The judge has not ruled yet on a separate motion by lawyers for the families to strip Boeing's immunity from prosecution.

The families accuse the government of cutting a secret deal with Boeing without telling them about the negotiations.

Judge O'Connor ruled last year that the relatives are crime victims under federal law, and should have been consulted before the Justice Department agreed to a deal under which Boeing paid $US2.5 billion ($3.61 billion) to avoid criminal prosecution on charges of defrauding federal regulators who approved the 737-MAX.

Most of the money from the settlement went to airlines that couldn't use their 737-MAX jets for nearly two years after the planes were grounded worldwide.

Boeing agreed to pay a $US243.6 million fine and create a $500 million fund to compensate victims' families.

The first passenger flight of a 737-MAX took place in May 2017.

The crashes occurred in October 2018 in Indonesia and less than five months later in Ethiopia.

On both planes, an automated flight-control system that Boeing did not initially disclose to airlines and pilots pushed the nose down based on a faulty reading from a single sensor on the fuselage.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cleared the 737-MAX to resume flying in late 2020 after Boeing redesigned the flight system.

The crashes led to congressional investigations that harshly criticised both Boeing and the FAA, and changes in how the FAA will certify planes in the future.

The only criminal charges stemming from the 737-MAX saga were filed against a former Boeing test pilot, who was accused of deceiving the FAA.

A jury in Fort Worth found him not guilty last year.


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