Germanwings crash: Lufthansa could face 'unlimited' compensation claims if found liable

The airline has offered thousands of pounds in initial financial aid to families

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The Independent Online

Lufthansa could have to pay “unlimited” compensation claims to families of the Germanwings disaster victims if the airline is found liable.

Experts claim that the damages limit of around £100,000 will not apply and relatives will be able to demand more in respect of each of the 150 people killed on Tuesday.

To avoid liability, a carrier has to prove that the crash was not due to “negligence or other wrongful act” by its employees, according to Article 21 of the internationally-binding 1999 Montreal Convention.

That will be a difficult defence to mount if the full investigation concludes that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately flew the plane into the French Alps at 430mph.

“More or less you will have unlimited financial damage,” said Marco Abate, a German aviation lawyer.

French prosecutors said preliminary evidence from flight 9525’s cockpit voice recorder indicates Mr Lubitz locked himself into the cockpit and re-programmed the autopilot to plunge the aircraft from 36,000ft to just 96ft above the ground.

Carsten Spohr, chief executive of Germanwings parent group Lufthansa, said the airline will honour “international arrangements regulating liability”.

How much the airline ends up paying in compensation will depend on where claims are filed.

The options in this case, a German flight en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, are many, said Dutch lawyer Sander de Lang.

“For example, French law, because that is where it crashed, German law, because in most cases the passengers had return tickets to and from Germany,” he said.

“But some people may have bought tickets in Spain, then Spanish law could be appropriate.”

A stele in memory of the victims of the Germanwings Airbus A320 crash is pictured in the small village of Le Vernet, French Alps, near the site where a Airbus A320 crashed on 24 March

In some countries including the Netherlands, there is no compensation for emotional suffering, he said.

Damages are typically much lower in Europe than in the US, where in domestic air crashes, juries have awarded claimants millions per passenger in some cases.

Mr Abate said that in German courts, damages for pain and suffering typically do not exceed 10,000 euros (£7,000).

But Lufthansa could face much bigger claims for loss of financial support and if the breadwinner of a family was killed in a plane crash, the survivors can sue for years of lost income.

Trust betrayed: lessons will be learned from the Germanwings crash

Several analysts said Lufthansa will probably reach settlements with relatives of victims to avoid going to court.

Once the shock and grief subsides, the compensation issues should be resolved quickly, said Wouter Munten, a Dutch lawyer representing relatives of victims of last year's Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crash in Ukraine.

”People always say take your time for grief,“ he said. ”But not everyone has the luxury to wait. Children have to be fed and go to school.“

Lufthansa is offering immediate aid of up to 50,000 euros (£36,500) per passenger, which is separate from eventual compensation payments.

The airline has also flown many victims' relatives to see the crash site in the French Alps.

Additional reporting by PA