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Judge: Sept. 11 lawsuits can proceed against airlines, others

NEW YORK — The crashing of a hijacked jetliner was the kind of "foreseeable risk" that the airline industry should have guarded against, a judge ruled today as he permitted lawsuits related to the Sept. 11 attacks to proceed.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said negligent security screening could have contributed to the deaths of 3,000 people in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash of a hijacked plane in Pennsylvania.

American and United Airlines, the Boeing Co. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had attempted to get the suits dismissed, arguing they had no duty to anticipate and guard against deliberate, suicidal aircraft crashes. The defendants also argued any alleged negligence on their part was not the cause of the deaths and injuries.

In his 49-page ruling, Hellerstein said that while it may be true that terrorists had never deliberately flown airplanes into buildings, "airlines reasonably could foresee that crashes causing death and destruction on the ground was a hazard that would arise should hijackers take control of a plane."

"The intrusion by terrorists into the cockpit, coupled with the volatility of a hijacking situation, creates a foreseeable risk that hijacked airplanes might crash, jeopardizing innocent lives on the ground as well as in the airplane," he added.

"In order to be considered foreseeable, the precise manner in which the harm was inflicted need not be perfectly predicted," Hellerstein wrote.

The judge said the evidence he had seen does not support Boeing's argument that the invasion and takeover of the cockpit by the terrorists frees it from liability. The plaintiffs argued Boeing should have designed its cockpit door to prevent hijackers from invading.

He also said the Port Authority, which owns the World Trade Center property, "has not shown that it will prove its defense of governmental immunity as to negligence allegations made by WTC occupants."

Messages for comment left with lawyers on both sides of the litigation were not immediately returned.

The decision was based on the cases of about 70 of the injured and dead.

As a result of the ruling, court officials were preparing for a possible legal onslaught at the Manhattan courthouse as early as this week as some people choose lawsuits over applying to the federal victims compensation fund. To receive a payout from the fund, families must agree not to sue airlines or other entities.

Dec. 22 is the last day families may apply to the federal victims compensation fund, created by Congress to provide financial aid to the families of those killed or injured in the attacks, and to protect the commercial aviation industry from crippling litigation.

As of late August, 2,275 claims had been filed. But roughly 1,700 families had yet to decide whether to enroll with the fund or join lawsuits against the airlines, security companies and government agencies.

The average payout so far has been about $1.5 million, with the highest award $6.8 million. The minimum payout is $250,000.

The fund has made offers averaging $1.41 million to 398 families thus far. About 1,600 families have filed papers stating an interest in applying for the fund.