Lion Air crash victims’ families in the middle of compensation lawyers’ ‘feeding frenzy’
It took almost two weeks to find the remains of Lion Air crash victim Murdiman (left). (Supplied)
When a Lion Air passenger plane crashed into the sea off Indonesia killing 189 people, Edwin had no idea he would soon be at the centre of what one aviation lawyer has called a “feeding frenzy”.
His close cousin Murdiman was killed in the crash, and it took almost two weeks for his remains to be identified and handed over for burial.
But as family members struggled with grief, they faced a confusing dilemma.
Lion Air offered relatives an insurance payout of 1.25 billion rupiah ($120,000), in line with Indonesian law that stipulates compensation must be offered within 60 days of a crash.
It did not take long for lawyers to come knocking after Lion Air flight JT610 crashed. (AP: Tatan Syuflana)
But to accept the money they had to forfeit their right to sue the airline, the plane’s manufacturer Boeing, or hundreds more companies connected to the plane — forever.
Even for Edwin, a criminal lawyer in Jakarta, it was an almost impossible calculation to make.
That same week, litigation lawyers representing local and US law firms began circling like sharks, encouraging relatives to go after Boeing, which is based in the US, for a potentially far bigger payment.
Edwin said he was approached “first by one lawyer, then another, then a third”, all offering to represent him in a lawsuit against Boeing.
Edwin said his family wants “justice to be upheld in Indonesia” after the death of his cousin. (Supplied)
One of them, Ribbeck Law Chartered, has promised potential payouts from Boeing of $US5 to $US10 million ($7.03 million to $14.05 million).
“The passenger will always win. It’s about how much they’re compensated,” said Manuel Von Ribbeck, who runs the firm with his sister.
“The insurance company tries to pay as little as possible, and we try to ask the juries for the highest amount possible for them.”
The law firm would pocket one third of any payment awarded in court, or 25 per cent if it was settled out of court.
For Edwin and the families of other victims it was the classic “bird in the hand” dilemma. Accept $120,000 now or wait years for a possible payment of millions.
And there was another gamble.
The family of Murdiman (left) was offered a payout of $120,000 after the fatal crash. (Supplied)
Edwin said Ribbeck Law would only go after Boeing, even though there’s been no definitive finding on who, or which company, is to blame.
“What our family wants is justice to be upheld in Indonesia, not just to sue Boeing,” Edwin said.
“But Ribbeck will only agree to sue Boeing.”
US lawyers flying to Indonesia for negotiations
With huge potential payouts and commissions possible, debate about the best strategy and competition for clients has become intense.
Seven weeks after the crash, the ABC has learnt that teams of lawyers from US law firms have travelled to Indonesia to negotiate with potential clients.
Edwin decided to sign up with a rival firm, Wisner Law, which was prepared to sue Boeing, as well as Lion Air and the Indonesian Government.
To date, only a handful of families have accepted Lion Air’s compensation offers. (AP: Tatan Syuflana)
Wisner’s principal, Floyd Wisner, has attacked Mr Von Ribbeck over his business practices.
He said promises of a $7 million to $14 million payout were “way, way, way beyond the realms of possibility”.
“I tell you, it’s impossible,” Mr Wisner said.
“I’m a plaintiff attorney. I’d love to do that, but there is no way. People who are grieving and grasping at any hope, and then to have someone say that is just irresponsible.”
He said there was no certainty a judge would even allow the case to be heard in the US and may well “dismiss” the Lion Air lawsuits back to Indonesia.
That would almost certainly mean vastly lower payouts. Mr Wisner said Lion Air relatives should be told about this possibility before they choose a lawyer.
Mr Von Ribbeck said he was focused on achieving the best result for the families of the victims.
“There is no reason why the lives of people of Indonesia should be worth less than the lives of people in the USA,” he said.
Mr Wisner said his firm has signed contracts with five relatives and expected to represent several more.
Ribbeck Law claims it has already filed lawsuits against Boeing on behalf of at least 35 Lion Air families.
Victim approached by lawyers before son was buried
Mr Wisner accused some rival lawyers, including Ribbeck, of breaching a US rule that bans solicitation of victims’ families within 45 days of an air crash.
“It’s a violation of the law in my opinion,” he said, describing the rush to represent the families as a “feeding frenzy”.
“I had people down there telling me ‘you should come down here’. I said, ‘I’m not going down for 45 days. I don’t care if I don’t get the cases’.”
One of those relatives told the ABC he was approached by a lawyer working with Ribbeck less than a week after the crash, before his son’s body was buried.
Ribbeck Law denies it broke any law. Mr Von Ribbeck, who runs the firm with sister Monica Ribbeck, said the 45-day rule applied only in the US and does not ban clients from contacting a lawyer.
Mr Wisner said the rule is about ethics as much as the law, and he “doubts judges would see it [Ribbeck’s] way”.
Ribbeck Law accused of approaching victims too early in the past
Highlighting the dilemma the victims’ families face, Ribbeck Law has been the subject of similar complaints about its tactics after previous plane crashes.
When Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed short of the runway in San Francisco in 2013, killing three people and injuring 180, some passengers complained to the National Transportation Safety Board that the firm had been soliciting illegally for clients, although there is no record any action was taken.
Monica Ribbeck was censured for misconduct after a Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam in 2009, where she filed a lawsuit for an injured passenger and tried to charge him fees a year after he had sacked her.
Nine people died when a Turkish Airlines plane crashed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. (Reuters: Paul Vreeker)
And last year, a US court ordered a lawyer acting for Ribbeck Law to pay $105,400 to Boeing for repeatedly filing “discovery requests” against the company.
The court found Ribbeck Law had misrepresented them as lawsuits on its website as a publicity tool.
Mr Wisner accused Ribbeck Law of “on-selling” their clients to two other US firms — Colson Hicks Eidson and Bartlett Chen — rather than appearing in court themselves.
“That’s the whole way these guys make money,” he said.
“They go right to the scene right after the crash, they chase families, they try to sign up a lot of families and then they’re through.
“They hand it off to other firms and wait for the money to come in.”
The ABC has contacted Colson Hicks Eidson and Bartlett Chen, but neither firm has responded. Mr Von Ribbeck said he was working with both firms on Lion Air claims and all three firms are listed on the cases filed in Chicago.
Mr Von Ribbeck dismissed the allegations against the law firm as “fake news … [that] should not be taken seriously”, threatened criminal defamation proceedings against the ABC in Indonesia and strenuously defended the company’s actions.
Its website says Ribbeck Law is “passionately devoted to improving international passenger safety and seeking justice” for air tragedy victims.
Mr Von Ribbeck pointed to one case involving a plane crash off Miami Beach where he said “we did great” by winning “$US50 million for 11 passengers from the Bahamas in record time — 11 months”.
Lower price put on Indonesian lives in court settlements
Only a handful of families have accepted Lion Air’s compensation offer, knowing they will lose the right to sue.
US law firm Kabateck, which represents at least two Lion Air relatives, has actively tried to discourage relatives from giving away their right to sue, and accused Lion Air of coercing them into signing a waiver.
Previous air crashes illustrate how wildly different compensation payouts can be from one country to another after a plane crash, and how little an Indonesian life is worth.
UK law firm Stewarts Law estimated that in 2015 an average settlement in the US was $6.3 million, against just $562,132 for an Indonesian victim.
The differences were partly to do with the jurisdiction in which a case was heard and a calculation of economic loss, according to James Healy-Pratt, head of the firm’s aviation department.
“The uneven values on the loss of lives of different nationalities in an air disaster has always been a problem to explain to families,” he said at the time.
It may also explain why so many Lion Air relatives — despite their grief — are all too ready to ignore Lion Air’s offer and hire law firms such as Ribbeck Law Chartered.