Copy of 2023-01-26T165337Z_542877122_RC2OFV9KFR20_RTRMADP_3_BOEING-737-MAX-1674812038317
The system was faulted in the crashes of a Lion Air plane in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Air flight less than five months later. Image Credit: REUTERS

London: Boeing pleaded not guilty to deceiving US regulators about changes made to its 737 Max flight control system that led to two horrific crashes, before relatives of some victims made tearful appeals to the judge to hold the aircraft maker accountable.

The arraignment in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, marks the first time the company has been forced to publicly answer to a criminal charge connected to the disasters in 2018 and 2019. Two years ago, Boeing reached a controversial deferred prosecution agreement with the government that granted the company legal immunity.

Mike Delaney, Boeing’s chief safety officer, entered the plea Thursday on behalf of the company, telling US District Judge Reed O’Connor that Boeing stands by its admissions of fault expressed in its agreement with the Justice Department, even while it’s contesting the pending felony charge.

The not-guilty plea could put the company at risk of violating the DOJ agreement, which forbade it from denying its role in hiding issues with the 737 Max flight control system from the Federal Aviation Administration. The system was faulted in the crashes of a Lion Air plane in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Air flight less than five months later.

Paul Cassell, an attorney representing the families challenging the deal, said he planned to file a motion with the judge arguing that Boeing had violated the terms of its agreement.

The arraignment Thursday was a hard-fought victory for families of people killed in the 737 Max crashes, who’ve spent the past year fighting to unwind the deferred prosecution agreement and have their voices heard. Lawyers for the families argue that they were blindsided by the 2021 deal and weren’t consulted on its terms.

Special monitor

As part of their effort to unwind the deal, the families asked O’Connor to appoint a monitor to oversee Boeing’s compliance with its non-prosecution agreement, a request the Justice Department and attorneys for Boeing said was unnecessary and would be an unprecedented move by the court.

While the judge didn’t immediately rule on the families’ request, he questioned the DOJ’s assertion that he should deny it simply because there have been no similar arrangements in other cases. “This case is unprecedented,” O’Connor said.

While the focus of Thursday’s hearing was on whether a monitor should be appointed, Cassell said his clients also are fighting “to get Boeing and its then-leadership criminally prosecuted.” The first step will be to have the judge rescind the immunity provision of the deal with the DOJ.

During the three-hour hearing, relatives of 10 Ethiopian Air victims made emotional appeals to the judge.

Naoise Connolly Ryan, who lost her husband Mick Ryan, is one of the few relatives who have refused any of the $500 million Boeing was required to set aside as compensation under the DOJ agreement.