By Casey Sullivan, Dan Levine and Sarah McBride
NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO, July 25 (Reuters) - Families of thethree passengers who died when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777crashed in San Francisco this month have retained the prominentNew York law firm Kreindler & Kreindler to represent them aslegal maneuvering over liability and damages heats up.
Kreindler & Kreindler, which specializes in aviation law,made a name for itself representing victims in catastrophic airdisasters, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Partner Jim Kreindler confirmed in an interview lateWednesday that he would handle the cases of the three Chineseteenagers who died, as well as 12 injury cases involving U.S.,Chinese and Korean residents. He said he intends to filelawsuits in the coming weeks.
Dozens were seriously injured in the crash of Asiana Flight214, which had 307 people aboard when it hit a seawall in frontof the runway, lost its tail and caught fire after skidding to ahalt.
Kreindler's clients include the family of Ye Meng Yuan, whosurvived the crash but died after being run over by a firetruck. Kreindler sent a letter to the San Francisco FireDepartment on Wednesday requesting documents, videotapes,photographs and other evidence related to the department'sresponse to the crash.
A spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney declined tocomment on the law firm's request.
Meanwhile, South Korea-based Asiana is marshaling its ownlegal resources, hiring Frank Silane, a complex litigationspecialist at the Los Angeles firm Condon & Forsyth.
Advising a team of about 70 airline employees, Silane helpedAsiana coordinate payments for medical expenses, hotel rooms andcar rental for the dazed survivors. In an interview last week,he called it a "humanitarian response."
Some plaintiff attorneys are warning passengers not to letAsiana's post-crash assistance go to their heads.
"My concern is that it's used as a PR opportunity to sendthe message that we're nice people, you can deal with us, and tostart to lay the foundation that they don't need a lawyer," saidFrank Pitre, a California attorney who represents twopassengers. He said he has been contacted by about two dozen.
Silane declined to disclose how much Asiana has paidpassengers in the aftermath of the crash. Plaintiff lawyers andone passenger contacted by Reuters say the airline has not yetproposed any formal legal settlements. At least one lawsuit hasalready been filed in the wake of the crash.
Asiana passenger Eugene Rah said Asiana paid for one week ofcar rental but not a second.
"I don't think they are doing anything aggressive," Rahsaid. "I think they are being cautious and careful."
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Attorneys cannot contact victims until 45 days after a planecrash. A law requiring the waiting period was enacted in 1996,to prohibit lawyers from immediately descending on crashvictims.
Following the Asiana crash, the National TransportationSafety Board circulated an email to plaintiff attorneysthreatening a State Bar referral for any lawyers who acted tooquickly.
The law doesn't prevent passengers from acting on their ownto seek out attorneys, and many already have. As of last week,Asiana's Silane said he had been contacted by roughly sevenattorneys who said they would sue in the near future.
"There is going to be a lot more," Silane said, "and we knowthat they have multiple passengers."
Once litigation gets underway, plaintiff attorneys expectthe airline to move as many claims as possible out of U.S.courts, where judgments tend to be much higher.
To do that, lawyers said Asiana will likely argue that aninternational aviation treaty called the Montreal Conventiondisqualifies certain passengers from bringing a lawsuit in theUnited States. According to the treaty, only passengers who arepermanent U.S. residents, purchased tickets in the UnitedStates, or were flying to the United States as a finaldestination may sue Asiana in the country.
It was not immediately clear how many passengers fell intothose categories. The people onboard the flight included 141Chinese passengers, 77 South Koreans and 64 Americans, accordingto an Asiana spokeswoman. The other passengers came from avariety of other countries, he said.
Under the treaty, Asiana is automatically liable for about$150,000 in damages per injured passenger, lawyers said. Butpassengers could recover more if they show the airline was atfault, they said.
If non-U.S. citizens can't sue Asiana in the United States,they could try to file lawsuits against third-party U.S.-basedcompanies, such as Boeing, that may have contributed to thecrash.
Kreindler said that his cases will largely target Boeing asthe primary defendant.
A Boeing spokesman declined to comment on potentiallitigation.
At the time of the crash, an airport instrument landingsystem called glide path was out of service. That could make theairport a target for litigation, said lawyer Michael Danko, whois representing a separate group of crash victims.
Potential plaintiffs, such as Ye's family, must jump throughhoops to successfully sue a government entity like the SanFrancisco Fire Department. To recover damages, they must showthat the department didn't follow specific protocols.
Silane declined to comment on Asiana's legal strategy. Theairline also declined to comment.
Asiana said it is covered by LIG Insurance, a Korean firm.Korean authorities have said the airline carries over $2 billionin coverage.
The NTSB, charged with investigating the crash, expects toissue its report in about a year. (Reporting by Casey Sullivan in New York and Sarah McBride andDan Levine in San Francisco.; Additional reporting by GerryShih.; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Stacey Joyce)