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Friday, July 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Father settles lawsuit in Alaska Air crash to avert playing of tape

Seattle Times staff reporter

A trial that was to have begun Monday in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 was averted yesterday when the father of a Seattle woman who died reached a confidential settlement. Only one of 88 wrongful-death suits remains.

Fred Miller, whose 25-year-old daughter, Abigail Busche, was killed, said he put aside his long-held desire for a trial for one reason: to spare others who lost loved ones from a public airing of the cockpit recording that captured the voices of passengers and pilots as the jet went down off the Southern California coast.

"It contains painful sounds," said Miller, who was told of its contents by his lawyers.

A judge allowed only attorneys in the case to hear the 30-minute tape before trial. The attorneys were barred from discussing the tape's details.

But one of Miller's attorneys, John Greaves of Los Angeles, said yesterday the recording would have been played in court, superimposed against animation of the plane's last minutes as it took two steep dives and flew upside down after the jet's horizontal stabilizer broke apart.

"I can tell you this," Greaves said. "It makes people jump out of their chairs listening to it. It's disturbing."

Only an edited transcript of the tape has previously been disclosed by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the crash that killed all 88 passengers and crew on Jan. 31, 2000.

Flight 261 plunged into the ocean off Southern California as it was flying from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle. The two pilots were trying to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles when they lost control of the MD-83.

The crash led to 88 wrongful-death lawsuits against Alaska and Boeing, which merged in 1997 with McDonnell Douglas, maker of the plane.

The 88 suits were consolidated into one case in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and, one by one, 87 were settled over the past 3-½ years. One, The one remaining suit, involving a California woman, was moved to Los Angeles and has not been set for trial.

How much was paid overall to the families is confidential.

But two people close to the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the total payout topped $300 million, all of it covered by insurance.

Miller said he struggled with his decision, always guided by one thought: "What would Abby want me to do?"

His daughter, who grew up in Skagit County, where Miller still lives with his wife on Samish Island, had her life in front of her, Miller said. She had married Ryan Busche, 28, also killed in the crash, and both worked at Microsoft.

The couple had traveled to Puerto Vallarta with four friends they had bonded with in college in Bellingham. All shared common loves — art, the outdoors, simply enjoying each other's company — and all died in the crash.

Their deaths, along with those of many other passengers from the Puget Sound area, resonated deeply throughout Western Washington, which had never before experienced such a loss from a plane crash.

Some families saw the litigation as a way to further explore safety issues surrounding the crash, beyond the transportation safety board's official conclusion in December that the accident resulted from Alaska's failure to lubricate a key mechanism in the plane's tail section.

But court rulings eliminated the possibility of punitive damages, and Alaska and Boeing chose not to contest liability. As a result, jurors would hear nothing about Alaska's maintenance practices or whether the plane was poorly designed. That left only the issue of how much money should be paid to more than a dozen families still in the case at that point.

The result was a spate of recent settlements, including Miller's last minute decision.

Greaves, Miller's lawyer, said although there won't be a trial, the fallout from the crash forced Alaska to improve safety and Boeing to make changes, including new methods to make the tail-section mechanism safer.

"There has been improvement, but there is still room for improvement," Greaves said. He singled out the safety board's finding that the crash stemmed, in part, from the lack of a "failsafe," a backup mechanism for the stabilizer device that failed.

Alaska spokesman Jack Walsh said yesterday the airline's goal from the start was to provide "fair and just compensation" for all the victims' families.

Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier said the plane maker had the same goal, as well as the desire to learn from the crash.

"Litigation or no, that's always the process we go through ourselves," Verdier said. "We're not always in litigation, but we're always flying airplanes."

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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