A federal judge in Fort Worth has denied a request by families of victims who died in two Boeing 737 MAX crashes to reopen an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that allowed Boeing immunity from being prosecuted for fraud. 

The two crashes killed 346 people in 2018 and 2019. 

In January, 13 family members of victims testified for three hours in front of Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court of Northern Texas, advocating for more legal action to keep the company accountable and impose restrictions they say will prevent another crash. Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, pleaded not guilty of fraud during the arraignment. 

O’Connor ruled on Feb. 9 that the court does not have authority to reopen the agreement made between the U.S. Department of Justice and Boeing.

Paul Cassell, the attorney representing the families, wrote in a statement that they are disappointed by the decision and plan to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans. 

“Boeing and (the) DOJ crafted an illegal and secret plea deal without any chance for the families to confer about it, which is required by the Crime Victims Rights Act,” Cassell wrote. “We are optimistic our appeal will vindicate the families’ rights in this case and ensure that never again are deals like this one reached secretly and without victim involvement.”

Families were seeking to place conditions on Boeing, such as hiring an independent corporate monitor to evaluate Boeing’s safety regulation compliance and assurance that compliance is “made to the fullest extent possible.” 

Boeing and the U.S. Department of Justice officials said the proposed orders are unnecessary because of existing oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and in a settlement with the federal government. 

Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice, including $500 million to the crash victims’ families. Families of the victims argue the DOJ did not consider the families in the agreement. 

Most deferred prosecution agreements are “bulletproof,” said Peter Reilly, a professor of law at Texas A&M University who advised on the case and studies the agreements. Once the DOJ makes an agreement with a company, it’s almost impossible to do anything about it, he said, because courts feel like the agreements are untouchable.

“That’s why the judge said there’s practically no judicial review of these agreements,” Reilly said. “And that’s why the judge at the end of his ruling said ‘look … I just don’t have the power to change this.’”

However, the fact that O’Connor ruled that the families of those killed were recognized as victims under the Crime Victims Rights Act, he said, might be a sign that the families’ case could succeed in the appeals court.

“The reason we have a fighting chance is because the Crime Victims Rights Act says no, you’ve got to confer with the victims,” Reilly said. “And that was not done in this case. That’s the only reason why in the end, the victims in this case might prevail.” 

Boeing did not provide comment on the recent ruling. In a previous statement, a company spokesman told the Fort Worth Report the company has made “broad and deep” changes across the company and to the design of the 737 MAX, which ensures accidents will not happen again, and that it is committed to complying with the terms of the deferred agreement. 

Reilly said a decision from the appeals court could come as soon as three weeks. 

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120

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Seth BodineBusiness Reporter

Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....