The Crusader Newspaper Group

Bill passes for relatives of crash victims

Photo caption: Ralph Nader (left) and Rep. La Shawn Ford

Prominent consumer activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader is praising State Representative La Shawn Ford (IL-8th) of Chicago for the passage of a bill that allows relatives of crash victims to sue corporations for punitive damages.

Nader, who for decades lobbied for consumer rights nationwide, and prominent Attorney Bruce Fein sent a letter in February to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA), urging the organization to help Ford and State Representative Jay Hoffman get the bill passed.

They were surprised when Illinois HB219 passed both Houses on May 18. Governor JB Pritzker will sign it into law later this month.

During a telephone interview with the Crusader, Nader expressed surprise at how quickly the bill passed in just one legislative session. “Ford really carried the ball for us,” Nader told the Crusader. “We didn’t think it was going to pass in this session.”

In the letter to Patrick A. Salvi II, president of the ITLA, Nader and Fein said, “Last year, some of the families spent time on this matter, including many a day by the mother of [crash victim] Samya Rose Stumo – the formidable Nadia Milleron – meeting with many legislators one at a time in Springfield. She secured the support of many of them, along with well-regarded political figures in the state.”

The families have already worked hard on Congress (leading to public hearings and passage of an aviation safety law) and on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shape up and become a regulatory agency instead of a consulting firm to Boeing, etc.

During the Illinois Assembly’s first legislative session of 2023, Ford sponsored HB219, which amended the Illinois Wrongful Death Act, which allows victims of crashes to sue corporations for negligence and wrongdoing.

But Ford learned there was a loophole in Illinois law in the wake of Boeing’s highly publicized problems with its 737 Max airplanes, two of which crashed within minutes of takeoff in 2018 and 2019.

A total of 319 people were killed when the Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed within five months of each other. Both planes were Boeing’s 737 Max models, whose flight control systems were believed to have caused the crash.

The design flaw was a concern among engineers for months, but Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg initially said the 737 Max planes were safe to fly and opposed grounding the model. Relatives of the crash victims accused Boeing of colluding with FAA inspectors to keep the 737 Max planes in the air.

After the airline crashes and the grounding of the 737 Max planes, Boeing eventually fired Muilenberg, and corrected the model’s flight control system, which during the airline crashes caused the planes to nosedive five minutes after takeoff.

On January 7, 2021, Boeing settled, agreeing to pay over $2.5 billion after being charged with fraud, but relatives of victims in Illinois could not sue Boeing because of a loophole in Illinois’ law under the Wrongful Death Act.

Under that old law, if a person was injured by the actions of a reckless or criminal corporation, the law allows the victim to pursue punitive damages against the company. Insurance policies do not cover the damage, and the company itself must pay. But if the victim actually dies from the same reckless conduct, the law does not allow for punitive damages from the company.

During a phone interview with the Crusader, Ford said several relatives of Boeing’s crash victims came to him, urging him to amend the Illinois law under the Wrongful Death Act.

“It was something that we worked on for a while before I introduced it to the Illinois House,” Ford told the Crusader. “It was the right thing to do. It was about listening to the victims’ families and understanding the importance of having this bill passed.”

Nader questioned why the loophole existed for decades without anyone addressing the problem. “All these years when trial lawyers in Illinois were strong in numbers and power, they never pushed for punitive damages for relatives of crash victims who died. What were you doing all those years?” Nader said.

State Representative Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said his bill would give heirs the same right as families of an injured person.

During the debate on the House Floor, Hoffman said, “This type of legislation is in 34 other states. I believe it’s a victims’ rights legislation, and I believe it’s important that punitive damages for bad actors be available in wrongful death cases.”

The new legislation may also apply to the family of Earl Moore, Jr., the 35-year-old Black man in Springfield who died last December after an altercation with two emergency medical services workers. The family could not seek punitive damages in its wrongful death lawsuit.

The family has not announced a specific damage amount in their suit filed against two EMS workers, Peter J. Cadigan, 50, and Peggy J. Finley, 44, and LifeStar Ambulance Services, Inc. Instead of punitive damages, the family is seeking compensatory damages to make up for financial losses after Moore’s death.

Ford said the amended law may apply to Moore’s relatives. However, Ford said the courts will ultimately decide on whether relatives in medical cases qualify for punitive damages once the lawsuit has been filed.

“It should apply because it [punitive damages] spreads to the medical field,” Ford said. The amended law makes no limit on specified punitive damage amounts because the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled caps on damages to be unconstitutional.

Republican lawmakers opposed the legislation, saying that it could hurt Illinois businesses that could potentially disinvest from neighborhoods throughout the state.

Business organizations that opposed the bill include the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA), the Illinois Insurance Association, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers Association and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

In a statement, the APCIA said, “Passage of the bill would make Illinois an extreme outlier state in terms of allowable damages for wrongful death cases, as almost all states that do allow for punitive damages also “cap” or otherwise limit both punitive and non-economic damages in some way, which Illinois does not.”

Ford disagrees with those concerns, saying that punitive damages for relatives “makes businesses stronger because it will force corporations to have safer planes.”

The amended law does not retroactively allow the relatives of crash victims in the Boeing case to sue.

Despite the bill’s passage, Nader told the Crusader he’s concerned about a portion of the bill’s language that says before relatives sue for punitive damages, a corporation must be prosecuted on criminal charges.

“That paragraph is very convoluted,” Nader said. “That seems to confuse the Court where you have to have a criminal record before anyone can seek punitive damages. It’s badly worded.”

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