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Missing Malaysia Jet Suits May Get Scuttled in U.S., Experts Say

Image: File picture of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with the registration number 9M-MRO

File picture of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with the registration number 9M-MRO flying over Poland February 5, 2014. The same plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, with 239 people on board, dropped off air traffic control screens at about 1:30 a.m. on March 8, 2014, less than an hour into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were no reports of bad weather or mechanical problems. Tomasz Bartkowiak / Reuters file

In late March, just over two weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route to Beijing, a Chicago law firm claiming to represent the families of passengers took the first step toward a potential multimillion dollar lawsuit against the carrier and the jet's manufacturer, a move that drew withering criticism from veteran aviation attorneys and stern condemnation from a Cook County judge.

The judge tossed out court action by the firm, Ribbeck Law Chartered, and admonished it for filing what she called a baseless petition demanding that Malaysia Airlines and Chicago-based Boeing Co. turn over evidence of possible design and manufacturing defects that may have caused the disaster.

And yet that judge's ruling has not stopped lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic from chattering about trying to win several millions of dollars in damages for lost passengers by filing lawsuits in the United States, legal experts said.

High-profile disasters inevitably attract American attorneys, experts said, but U.S. federal courts are generally reluctant to take up cases involving foreign air crashes — and may be disposed to throw out Flight 370 lawsuits, said veteran aviation attorney Gerald Sterns.

"I think if this case were hypothetically filed in Chicago against Boeing, for example, the chances of it staying in the U.S. are probably less than one-in-three," Sterns said.

Mike Tull, a Boeing spokesman, declined to comment when reached by NBC News on Wednesday evening.

1:22

No Wreckage, Slim Case

Sterns said that the majority of discussions about potential Malaysia jet lawsuits are purely speculative, and that "as long as there's no wreckage and no evidence" about what caused the airplane to vanish and presumably plummet into the ocean, lawyers won't have much grist for legal action.

But even if investigators determine that Boeing was somehow responsible for the disaster, attorneys would have a fairly challenging time filing suits stateside. American courts, with some exceptions, have historically been unwilling to get entangled in cases involving foreign air disasters, experts said.

"I think it is highly misleading to tell the families they might get additional compensation in the United States when all of the recent accidents prove otherwise," James Healy-Pratt, an attorney with Stewarts Law who represented some of the families of Air France Flight 447, told NBC News in late March.

A federal court threw out a lawsuit against parts makers in connection with the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean. A court also dismissed a lawsuit filed in Chicago against Boeing after the 2005 Helios Airways crash near Athens, Greece. Sterns, who represented the plaintiffs in that case, called the judicial rebuff "painful."

2:32

A Foreign Matter

Kevin Durkin, an aviation accident attorney and partner at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, said that while he has successfully brought cases against Boeing over the course of his legal career, U.S. courts typically rule that it would be more convenient for claims to be heard by a court in the country where an air crash happened or where the investigation is taking place.

"A judge could rule in any case filed here that (the U.S.) is not a convenient forum, and that there's a better forum somewhere else in which to litigate the case," Durkin said.

Joseph Sweeney, an emeritus professor of law at Fordham University, told the Associated Press in an email that American courts "with crowded dockets are more likely to dismiss foreign plaintiffs where there are language problems, esoteric laws and/or missing witnesses."

He said dismissal of foreign claimants based on those grounds has been "almost customary" ever since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1981 decision in Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno to dump lawsuits stemming from the crash of an airplane in the Scottish Highlands.

All 239 people on the missing Malaysia jet — 227 passengers and 12 crew — are assumed by Malaysian authorities to be dead. Three of the passengers, including two children, were from the United States.

The airline must pay the families of those on board around $176,000 under a multilateral treaty known as the Montreal Convention, and has said it already gave relatives $5,000 per passenger in compensation.

Alastair Jamieson of NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.