Facing an onslaught of lawsuits and a criminal investigation, Boeing announced Wednesday the appointment of a newly created czar to oversee all legal matters arising from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX jetliners.
J. Michael Luttig, 64, a former federal appeals court judge who has served as Boeing’s general counsel since 2006, was named counselor and senior adviser to Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg and the company’s board of directors.
The move reflects the complex and potentially costly fallout stemming from the crashes, coming on the heels of statements indicating Boeing plans to take an aggressive stance in responding to civil allegations and any potential criminal accusations.
Boeing also has raised the possibility it might take the unusual step of asking that the lawsuits be thrown out of courts on its home turf in the U.S. and moved to foreign — and possibly more favorable — locales where the crashes occurred.
Boeing said Luttig will manage all legal matters related to the Lion Air crash off Indonesia in October and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in that country in March, in which a total of 346 people were killed, the Chicago-based company said in a news release. He will also handle other “special matters,” Boeing said without elaborating.
“During his 13 years of service at Boeing, Judge Luttig has built the finest legal team in the world and delivered an unparalleled record of success for the company,” Muilenburg said. “Judge Luttig is not only a brilliant legal mind, but also a critical voice on all the important issues and opportunities facing our company.”
Muilenburg staked out the company’s position in a tense news conference Monday after the company’s annual shareholder meeting, during which he defended the design and certification process for the MAX.
In the case of the MAX, those processes certified as safe a new flight-control system that was triggered on both the Lion Air and Ethiopian crash flights by a single faulty sensor and then engaged repeatedly to push the nose of each airplane down. Boeing is currently flight testing a software redesign of this system — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
Muilenburg said airplane accidents are typically due to “a chain of events,” that “it’s not correct to attribute that to any single item,” and pointed to actions by the pilots on the two flights, who he said did not completely follow the standard procedure.
Dozens of lawsuits seeking monetary damages have been filed against Boeing in U.S. courts, alleging negligence on the part of the company.
Attorneys in the Chicago and Seattle law offices of Perkins Coie have appeared as Boeing’s counsel in the lawsuits, signaling in court papers they may argue the cases should be held in the countries where the crashes occurred. Plaintiffs’ attorneys fear that could mean monetary damages would be lower than typically awarded in U.S. courts.
Boeing is also facing a criminal investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section, which is looking into the design and certification process that led the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the MAX as safe.
Boeing has refused to discuss the investigation, amid speculation that it is being represented by the powerhouse worldwide law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
Luttig, who is popular in conservative legal circles, has pushed for the appointment of two Boeing lawyers, Joseph Cascio and Matt Cooper, to fill open positions on the U.S. District Court bench in Seattle, according to sources familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential selection process.
In his 15 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, Luttig was at the forefront of the new federalism movement, according to a 2006 story in The New York Times. Its adherents questioned and limited the authority of Congress to enact wide-reaching legislation, the article said.
Luttig will be replaced as Boeing general counsel by Brett Gerry, who has served as president of Boeing Japan since 2016.