Boeing's CEO was at a loss for words when he was interrogated by Congress over the company's attempts to move lawsuits filed by the families of those killed in one of the 737 Max crashes to Indonesia.
Rep. Henry Johnson questioned Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg about the company's stated intention to try and move the cases from the first crash outside of the US to Indonesia — where the crash occurred — at a meeting of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Wednesday.
In response, Muilenburg said: "Congressman, I can't comment on that. I'm just not familiar with the details of that."
Boeing had stated in court in March that it would try and move the cases from the first crash to Indonesia, but has since opened settlement talks with families without committing to keeping the cases in the US if those talks fail.
Johnson then asked Muilenburg: "So are you here to say that your company would not take efforts to protect itself from the US court system insofar as the victims of these air crashes are concerned?"
Muilenburg again said: "I don't know the answer."
Peter DeFazio, the chair of the committee, later hammered Muilenburg, questioning how, as CEO of the company, he could not be aware of the company's legal strategy in dealing with the two 737 Max crashes, which killed 346 people.
The first, involving a Lion Air flight in Indonesia, killed 189 people in October 2018, while a second, involving an Ethiopian Airlines plane, occurred in March 2019, killing 157 people.
DeFazio pointed to a Business Insider story by this reporter from June, in which multiple lawyers representing victims' families said they were preparing to fight efforts by Boeing, and in which multiple experts said moving the cases would make them "worthless" for the families and put Boeing under less scrutiny.
A transcript of DeFazio and Muilenburg's exchange can be seen below:
DeFazio: This took me 30 seconds with a Google search. June 13th, Business Insider: "The company is arguing for the cases to be moved from the US to Indonesia." And you would have us believe that you are not aware? Your legal team, they're so far distant from you? You don't talk to them? This hasn't been discussed on the board?
My wife was the risk manager for the city of Eugene, Oregon, for a long time. She had to pay the claims. When a big claim came, just a couple of million bucks against the city, she was involved, the city manager was involved, the legal team was involved, everybody was involved.
You're looking at hundreds of millions, billions of dollars of claims — you're trying to move to a country, and this expert says [quoting Business Insider's story again]: "Having a trial in a another country, with a different legal culture, less scope for close scrutiny of Boeing, would render the cases 'worthless.'"
And you don't know that that's happening, that you're making that pleading?
Muilenburg: Congressman, I'm aware of those articles … but … as I stated earlier …
DeFazio [interrupting]: Would you please respond to the committee, after you consult with your lawyers, have they filed to move these cases to Indonesia, in any court in the United States, or do they intend to?
Muilenburg: Mr Chairman, we'll follow up with that information.
You can watch the exchange here:
—Kieran Corcoran (@kj_corcoran) October 31, 2019
Boeing is currently in settlement talks with some families, and has settled the cases with some families.
But lawyers for the families told Business Insider that Boeing could continue to threaten to move the cases in a bid to drive down the amount that they are willing to settle for, and it is unclear if the company will pursue that strategy or commit to keeping the cases in the US.
Muilenburg, in the exchange above, promised to clarify the company's strategy to the committee.
Different compensation laws and laws around evidence mean that "if Boeing can get the cases sent back to either Indonesia or Ethiopia, those cases really become worthless," Mike Danko, an aviation attorney and pilot, who is not involved in the cases, told Business Insider in June.
Brian Kabateck, a lawyer representing multiple families of those killed in the first crash, told Business Insider that the cases should stay in the US as: "These aircrafts were designed in the US, conceived in the US, built in the US, sold in the US."
"I think everything critical that went wrong on that aircraft happened as a result of something that happened in the United States," he said.
Boeing has also separately made a $100 million fund available to victims' families, and has said that using the fund will not prevent families from being able to pursue legal action.