Crash Suit Could Get Lucrative Venue

Thanks to a 67-year-old international convention and a benevolent clause in Norwegian law, the families of the 141 victims of the Aug. 29 Vnukovo Airlines crash on Norway's Spitzbergen Island may be on the verge of an important victory in the battle for compensation.

Sources involved in the case say any litigation will likely take place in Norway, a country in which the law provides for crash victims' families to receive up to $140,000 each, depending on their individual financial losses and needs.

However, Vnukovo Airlines chief lawyer Joseph Gibkot contends that under international law, the airline and its insurance brokers, London-based Willis Corroon Aerospace, are required to pay no more than $20,000 per family.

Norwegian lawyer Gunnar Nerdrum said that within a week he will file a suit in Norway against Vnukovo Airlines, Arktikugol -- the mining company that chartered the flight -- and their insurance companies on behalf of the family of one of the victims. Payment of any damages assessed would be split among them.

Tupolev, the manufacturer of the Tu-154 jet that crashed, will not be named, as no sign of mechanical failure has been found.

"The beauty of this is that it's the first time a Russian family will be given Western justice, and the best of Western justice at that," said a source who requested his name be withheld.

Vnukovo's Gibkot argues, however, that victims' families would rather have Russian justice.

"No one wants this case to be in Norway. Only Norway wants it to be in Norway," he said. "There is no basis not to trust the Russian courts." He added that, in any case he expects the majority of the families to settle out of court.

In accordance with the Warsaw Convention of 1929, jurisdiction after an air catastrophe can belong to the country of the airline's main office (in this case, Russia), the country of the airline's insurance broker (Britain), or the country of destination (Norway). The victim's family can choose any of the three.

Gibkot argues that the convention indicates that payments to families should be no greater than $20,000. Norway's higher compensation ceiling, he said, contradicts international law.

A source connected with the Norwegian side of the case said, however, that Norway is fully within its rights. He said while jurisdiction can belong to Norway under the Warsaw Convention because the plane was destined there, the Norwegian compensation law kicks in because the crash took place on Norwegian soil. Thus, he said, application of the compensation law is in addition to -- not in contradiction of -- dollar amounts indicated by the Warsaw Convention.

An unconfirmed United Press International report earlier this week said that the families had only received $370 to date. Gibkot said the families have been paid an unspecified amount for burial costs and that a second installment of money is on its way to them now. The rest of their money will be awarded to them, he said, after a study by the Intergovernmental Commission on Investigation of Catastrophes is completed. Each family will be dealt with individually and awards will be based on families' individual circumstances. This, he said, is the way the matter should be dealt with according to Russian law.

As Gunnar Nerdrum works on the case in Norway, the Moscow office of Austria-based Specht and Associates is acting pro-bono as a liaison between Nerdrum and the families of the 64 Russians and 77 Ukrainians who died in the crash.

At the moment, only one client is officially represented in the case, but it will likely become a class-action suit on behalf of all the families, Nerdrum said.

Specht and Associates is actively seeking out the families, he said.

While families await any compensation that may be coming their way, the Norwegian Workers' Association is taking collections worldwide to tide them over and to cover legal fees in the event of a defeat in court. Donations can be made at Norwegian Embassies around the world.

The campaign, said Nerdrum, has attracted great interest in Norway. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be in charge of payment when the collection is completed, according to Randi Hoff of the Norwegian Workers' Association.