Continental Airlines Inc. won a bid to overturn its manslaughter conviction for the deaths of 113 people in the crash of Air France’s Concorde supersonic jet 12 years ago.
The appeals court in Versailles, near Paris, reversed the 2010 guilty verdict in a ruling today, while holding the carrier and two employees civilly responsible for the crash and awarding Air France 1 million euros ($1.3 million) in damages. Judge Michele Luga also awarded victims payments worth hundreds of thousands of euros.
Continental, now part of United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US), and a maintenance engineer fought the lower court’s decision to hold them responsible for the deaths, saying the Concorde’s explosion wasn’t the result of debris from a Continental plane.
Continental’s image “is completely cleaned” by the “historic” verdict, said Olivier Metzner, the carrier’s lawyer. “There’s no criminal blame placed on Continental,” he said. In France, “civil blame is interpreted much more broadly.”
The Concorde crashed soon after take-off on July 25, 2000, when a fireball was ignited after the jet ran over a piece of metal fallen from a prior Continental flight, investigators said. The probe found the strip tore one of the tires and sent debris into its fuel tanks. Continental has disputed that scenario, saying the fire began before the jet hit the strip.
The two men held civilly responsible are John Taylor, who serviced the DC-10 and installed the wearstrip that fell from the plane, and Stanley Ford, a supervisor.
The men and airline were faulted for negligence in the work done on the DC-10, while Judge Luga said they couldn’t be held criminally responsible for the Concorde crash. Taylor was given a suspended sentence by the lower court.
“This was a tragic accident and we support the court’s decision that Continental did not bear fault,” Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based carrier, said in an e-mail.
“We have long maintained that neither Continental nor its employees were responsible for this tragic event and are satisfied that this verdict was overturned.”
The crash hastened the demise of the Concorde. Flights were grounded for 16 months afterwards and the plane went back into service just as demand for air travel fell after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Concorde’s last commercial flight was in 2003.
Air France, now part of Air France-KLM Group (AF), joined the appeal to dispute Continental arguments that the company ignored warning signs about the supersonic jet.
“Air France is very satisfied with this decision,” its lawyer Fernand Garnault said by phone. “The court upheld that Air France is absolutely not responsible for this accident.” The 1 million euros awarded in civil damages is the same as the lower court awarded, he said.
United Airlines parent UAL Corp. and Continental merged in 2010 to form Chicago-based United Continental Holdings.
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