A federal judge ruled late last week that the family of two victims from Virginia who perished in the 2015 Germanwings crash can sue the airline in the United States.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ruled that the “Court has personal jurisdiction over Germanwings because the airline purposely availed itself of Virginia by transacting business in the Commonwealth through its agent, United. This business activity resulted in the sale of tickets that gave rise to Plaintiffs’ cause of action.”
Yvonne Selke and her daughter, Emily, were the only U.S. residents killed in the Germanwings crash. They purchased their travel in the U.S. through United Airlines, which at the time of the purchase was bound by contractual agreements with Germanwings.
On March 24, 2015, Yvonne and Emily boarded an Airbus A320-211, operating as Germanwings Flight 9525, which was scheduled to fly from Barcelona, Spain to Düsseldorf, Germany. The flight had 144 passengers and six crewmembers onboard.
Less than an hour into the flight, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit and steered the plane into a drastic descent. The Selkes, along with all others aboard Germanwings Flight 9525, experienced extreme terror, fear and pain as they helplessly watched the airliner descend and crash into mountainous terrain. All 150 people onboard died in the horrific tragedy.
An investigation into the Germanwings crash concluded that Andreas Lubitz caused the crash by deliberately diving the airliner until it crashed into the French Alps. Investigators found that Lubitz suffered from what was possibly a psychotic depressive episode. He was able to lock out the flight’s captain, who had left the cockpit on a bathroom break, because there was no policy in place requiring that there be at least two crew members in the cockpit at all times. This safety policy has been in place in the U.S. since approximately the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
While the European Union adopted the same cockpit rule shortly after the Germanwings tragedy, the European Aviation Safety Agency decided last year to relax the policy. Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, no longer requires two crew members in the cockpit, though other European airlines have maintained the policy.
In January, Raymond Selke and his son, through their attorneys at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, filed a lawsuit for the wrongful death of Yvonne and Emily against defendants Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Germanwings GMBH, Eurowings GMBH and United Airlines (Case No. l:17-cv-00121-United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division). At the time of the crash, Germanwings was a subsidiary of Lufthansa. Germanwings has since merged with and now operates as Eurowings.
Germanwings, Lufthansa and Eurowings together filed a Motion to Dismiss and/or for Summary Judgment to remove themselves from the only U.S.-based Germanwings crash lawsuit. United Airlines filed its own separate Motion to Dismiss. In his rulings, Judge Lee held that the Court does not have jurisdiction over Eurowings, and that United and Lufthansa are not liable.
However, Judge Lee denied Germanwings’ part of the Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction:
“Although Germanwings has no physical presence in Virginia, its ticketing arrangements with United and express authorization of United selling its services to Virginia citizens reflects sufficient purposeful availment of the forum to justify the assertion of personal jurisdiction. Generally, if a defendant has created a ‘substantial connection’ to the forum, then it has purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting business there,” Judge Lee wrote in his ruling.
The Selke family is represented by Ronald L. M. Goldman, Ilyas Akbari and Crawford Appleby of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, based in Los Angeles. The firm has handled more than 660 aviation crash cases across the globe.
Ilyas Akbari, was pleased with last week’s ruling, stating, “Given the tide of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have restricted personal jurisdiction, this decision should serve as a ray of sunshine to the plaintiffs’ community, especially in international plane crash cases,” said Akbari. “Our case shows that if American residents are killed while flying overseas, their families can still bring an action against a foreign airline in America.”
The Selke Germanwings crash lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in Virginia later this year.
In March, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa in Phoenix, dismissed the cases of 81 families who were not residents of the United States, based on the legal principle of forum non conveniens. Their lawsuits alleged that Airline Training Center Arizona Inc. was partly to blame for failing to properly screen out Lubitz while he was training.