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Thursday, August 5, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Swissair Surprises Victims' Families, Takes Responsibility For Fatal Crash

AP

PHILADELPHIA - Swissair, in an unannounced move that shocked 30 lawyers representing families suing the airline, offered in federal court today to take responsibility for last year's fatal crash off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Desmond Barry, an attorney for Swissair, told U.S. District Court Judge James Giles that his client as well as co-defendants Boeing and Delta Airlines, which had a ticket-sharing deal with Swissair, admitted fault for the accident. Today's pretrial conference had been planned to sort out procedural technicalities.

"We agree to share liability for the accident and pay full compensatory damages for each passenger and crew member," Barry said.

As part of the proposed deal, plaintiffs in the 167 cases currently filed would agree to waive punitive damages. In addition, Barry requested that about 120 of the cases be dismissed from U.S. court for litigation in France or Switzerland because many of the passengers on the plane were from other countries.

Swissair is facing claims totaling $16 billion from families of U.S. victims suing on grounds of gross negligence.

The settlement offer came as a surprise to the plaintiffs' attorneys present at the hearing, who weren't told about the offer beforehand.

"This is extraordinary," said Lee Kreindler, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "I've never seen this happen before. But better late than never."

Flight 111, en route from New York to Geneva, crashed last September after the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit. All 229 people on board were killed.

The airline's offer came after Swissair said a steward on the MD-11 had reported that crew members reported strange smells in the cabin less than a month before the crash.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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