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Flight school in Arizona blamed for Germanwings crash

Sertan SandersonApril 19, 2016

More than half of the families affected by the March 2015 Germanwings crash have filed a suit against the Arizona flight school that trained suicidal co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. DW spoke to the law firm behind the suit.

Airline Training Center Arizona (ATCA)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. D. Franklin

New-York based law firm Kreindler & Kreindler have filed a suit in Arizona against a US flight school that trained suicidal Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz. More than 80 families of victims are part of the legal complaint.

The law firm has investigated or litigated numerous airline crashes, including the downing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland, the still-missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. They advertise themselves as the leading aviation law firm in the United States and are now taking on the case of Germanwings flight 4U9525, one year after the incident.

"We're seeking justice on behalf of the families. We want to find out how a defective airline pilot such as Andreas Lubitz could go on to become a commercial airline pilot," Kreindler partner Brian Alexander told DW.

Having struggled with depression for most of his life, Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed flight 4U9525 into the French Alps in March 2015, killing himself and 149 other people on board, many of whom were high school students. But his mental health history went as far back as 2008, when Lubitz suspended his training at Germany's national carrier Lufthansa to seek therapy. After more than nine months of treatment, he returned and traveled to the US in 2010 to register to train at the Airline Training Center in Arizona (ATCA).

The best position to prevent the crash

Brian Alexander said that the Airline Training Center in Arizona was in the best position to prevent the crash from happening: "I wouldn't say that if I didn't mean it. They admitted him knowing with full certainty that he would end up flying a commercial airline jet. We cannot fathom why they would allow for someone like that to go through the process of becoming a pilot. This is not to suggest that there may not have been other opportunities to change the course of events, but the best opportunity was certainly here in the US at the Arizona training center, and that's why we're suing them here. It is the only place where we can sue them."

Brian Alexander knows more about airplanes and aviation than many of his colleagues. As a military-trained pilot he can relate not only to his clients' grievance but also to the realities of flying aircraft and receiving training at flight schools.

Brian Alexander, Kreindler & Kreindler
Brian Alexander criticized the Airline Training Center Arizona for not adhering by its own high standards and letting Lubitz qualify as a commercial pilotImage: Kreindler & Kreindler LLC

"When I was training to become a pilot, something like a small flaw in your eyesight would get you disqualified. This industry has some tough standards. The ATCA has always touted their own stringent criteria. They and Lufthansa have repeatedly stated how stringent they are. That is why we can't understand why they gave him the right to move forward with his training," Alexander said in an interview with DW. Brian Alexander also stressed that Lubitz lied in his application at ATCA about his mental health history.

"He was fresh out of psychotherapy and tried to conceal that, and was found out. But ATCA still gave him permission to move forward and fly in the US during his training. All of that concealment should have been known to ATCA – or was known. ATCA is owned by Lufthansa, after all," Alexander explained.

'A suicide time bomb'

Attorney Marc S. Moller, also a partner at Kreindler, went a bit further and said that Lubitz's particular history of depression and mental instability "made him a suicide time bomb, triggered to go off under the ordinary stresses of life, particularly the kind of stress a commercial pilot routinely faces."

"The fuse which culminated in Lubitz's suicide on March 24, 2015, that took the lives of 149 passengers and his fellow crewmates, was lit when ATCA negligently allowed him to begin commercial pilot training. The plaintiffs in this case correctly claim that ATCA enabled Lubitz to make Flight 4U9525 passengers the victims of his derangement."

The families affected by the Germanwings disaster have already received compensation from Lufthansa, the airline's parent company, to varying degrees. But there have been repeated clashes between the victims' families and the airline as well as discrepancies and disagreements in what has allegedly already been paid in compensation. The families claim that the company offered 45,000 euros ($50,800) for each life lost. Lufthansa's management claims it intends to pay 100,000 euro on average.

Andreas Lubitz
Andreas Lubitz falsified his mental health record in his application, which Brian Alexander says ATCA should have paid closer attention toImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Damages paid in the US tend to be more generous, with a different litigation culture enabling compensation of millions to be achieved in some cases. Brian Alexander acknowledges that damages won in the US are typically greater than in other places but adds that in addition to obtaining "fair and reasonable compensation for the families, we want to expose safety issues and send a message to the major airlines to do a better job with the people they select and better monitor people with mental health issues."

Privacy laws

Part of Lufthansa's shortcomings were, however, related to privacy issues, with doctor-patient confidentiality laws in Germany not allowing Lubitz's physicians from disclosing some of his mental health problems.

"Suggestions that privacy issues prevented Lubitz's medical providers from disclosing the scope of his problems are bogus," said Marc Moller. "Nothing prevented ATCA, a US company, from inquiring further into Lubitz's background and even requiring that he waive any 'privacy' issues to ensure that the safety of the passengers on aircraft he piloted would not be compromised."

Germanwings crash site
Victims' families complained that Lufthansa has not been proactive in dealing with the tragedyImage: French Interior Ministry/DICOM/Y. Malenfer via Reuters

"The flying public has a right to be in the care of qualified pilots. I am a great supporter of privacy but there are jobs where you have to meet certain standards. You can't have someone with a disability perform certain tasks. And in that regard, the Airline Training Center failed," Alexander added.

"We're very proud to say that many of our lawsuits have resulted in aviation improvements. The airline industry is a system that constantly has to be tweaked and improved. Lufthansa is recognized as a worldwide leader in the airline business. We're not out to bash Lufthansa. This is a reasonable, well thought-out lawsuit. Their training is among the best in the world, but in this particular regard, they clearly need to improve."

Germanwings: A year on