Asiana Airlines will likely end up paying hundreds of millions of dollars to passengers of its flight that crashed in San Francisco on Saturday, according to a leading aviation law expert.
"I don't think there's a claim out there worth less than $1 million. Many will be worth multi-millions," said Arthur Wolk, one of the top personal injury attorneys specializing in air crashes. The Philadelphia-based Wolk said that, as of Monday, he had not been retained by any of the passengers or their families.
The crash, the first fatal airline crash in the United States in nearly four years, occurred Saturday when the Boeing 777 jet attempting to land clipped the end of runway. There were 182 people hospitalized with injuries ranging from severe scrapes to paralysis.
Wolk said even the 123 passengers on the plane who escaped without any physical injuries are likely to see seven-figure settlements from the airline and its insurance carriers due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"PTSD is an insidious illness," he said. "Many can't return to work. Even those who think they're fine and return to work, six months later they find out they're a blob on the floor because it finally comes home to roost."
Wolk said his first settlement based on PTSD was for a flight attendant who escaped without physical injury when a United Airlines flight crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. Since then PTSD settlements have become common for survivors of airline crashes.
Wolk said that none of the US Airways passengers whose plane landed in New York's Hudson River in January 2009 filed suits following that crash. But he said US Airways gave each a cash settlement -- even though the flight crew was celebrated for landing the crippled plane and saving everyone's life. The airline did not return a call seeking comments on payments in that case.
The larger settlements will be for passengers who sustained major injuries, as well as for the two Chinese girls who were killed. Those settlement amounts will be based on estimates for lifetime lost wages, pain and suffering and medical costs. Wolk said settlements will not be larger even if it turns out that pilot error was the cause of the crash.
"There has never been a punitive damage verdict against an airline for a crash," he said. "No matter how egregious the conduct proves to be, and this seems pretty egregious, it's not going to change the dollar number."
Wolk predicted Asiana will agree not to contest its liability in the case because it does not want extended attention to the role its crew played in the crash.
He said he doesn't believe that aircraft maker Boeing or San Francisco Airport or other potential defendants will end up having to pay any damages, even if they are named in a suit. Investigators are now looking into the possibility that one of the two girls killed in the crash was hit by an emergency vehicle racing to the scene. But even if that proves to be the case, Wolk predicts Asiana will face the legal responsibility for her death, not the airport or fire department.
"The potential exists there for a lot of different defendants, but Asiana and its (insurance) carriers will be the ones that end up paying," he said.