More Grief Over LockerbieBy Elizabeth Moore. STAFF WRITER
If they had spilled hot coffee on themselves, the bitter parents of some Pan Am Flight 103 victims say, the courts would have treated them better.
More than six years after a terrorist bomb blew up that jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and 11 on the ground, Pan Am's insurer has finally begun to settle the claims against the defunct airline. But some plaintiffs have been angered at the size of the settlements offered.
About 40 cases have been settled since early March, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Pan Am's appeal of a 1992 Uniondale jury verdict that the airline committed "willful misconduct" in failing to search unaccompanied bags on the flight despite warnings a Pan Am flight would be bombed.
At least two dozen other cases are "in the zone of settlement," said New York attorney Sol Schreiber, one of two court-appointed attorneys who have been holding conferences to speed resolution of the claims.
The first payouts from U.S. Aviation Underwriters Inc. could come within
a month, attorneys said. Some widows and children of Flight 103 passengers
have been awarded millions in lost support. But dozens of plaintiffs whose
children died at Lockerbie were chagrined last month to receive settlement
offers of $275,000, and warnings from attorneys that they might not increase
that award much by going to trial.
The reason: the deceased left no dependents.
"What are we telling corporate America about responsibility?" asked a frustrated Kathleen Flynn of Montville, N.J., whose son John was killed on the plane. "Something is wrong with this picture." Calling the settlement offers "insulting and inhumane," Flynn gathered last week with about 20 other parents and almost as many lawyers for a hearing in the Uniondale courtroom where U.S. District Court Judge Thomas C. Platt has been handling most of the consolidated Lockerbie litigation.
But the judge referred parents to Schreiber, who gently suggested that their legal options were limited. Under the treaties governing international flights, Pan Am can't be assessed punitive damages. And a recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling found airlines in such flights don't owe parents damages for mental anguish, or the loss of their children's "society," either.
The U.S. Supreme Court is to decide tomorrow whether to take up an appeal of that ruling, but observers say it is unlikely to do so. Still, some close to the settlement negotiations said the insurer may agree to pay somewhat higher awards to parents. Without the Uniondale jury's 1992 finding of wilful misconduct, international treaties would have limited Pan Am's damages to $75,000 per passenger.
Pan Am appealed that verdict three times before taking it to the Supreme Court, prompting Platt to accuse them of "shocking" foot-dragging. "Don't you understand there are widows and people suffering . . . while you guys have been doing this?" he chided the defense in November.
Pan Am's insurer and defense team are the subjects of an ongoing Brooklyn grand jury investigation into whether they paid witnesses to lie in court or committed other crimes in the Lockerbie litigation.
One trial under way in Uniondale could yield an award of as much as $50 million or more: the case of Michael Pescatore, 33, a Harvard-educated British Petroleum vice president whose performance reviews showed his superiors expected him to rise to the very top handful of executives in the multinational corporation. There were bankers and corporate executives among the parents who met with Schreiber to air their frustration over settlement offers that are far less than what McDonald's must pay a woman who was scalded by a cup of its coffee.
Jack Flynn, a Citibank vice president, said he was resisting attorneys' pressure to settle for moral reasons. "It's not the money so much when you get down to it," he said later. "When someone tells you your son is only worth `x,' well, it's hard to settle."