TWA Crash Suits May Hinge on Where Jetliner Went Down: Court Jurisdiction Depends on Limits of Territorial Waters

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

TWA Crash Suits May Hinge on Where Jetliner Went Down: Court Jurisdiction Depends on Limits of Territorial Waters


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The force that tore apart TWA Flight 800 plunged the giant aircraft and 230 persons down in legally uncharted waters.

The location of the crash could add hundreds of millions of dollars to any court-ordered payoffs if the families of victims win a "willful misconduct" verdict against Trans World Airlines.

The battle will be long and complex and provide employment for squadrons of lawyers, who may come to appreciate the real estate slogan about the importance of "location, location, location."

Plaintiffs will argue that the crash occurred in United States coastal waters. The airline will contend that the plane dropped into the high seas, and any awards must be restricted accordingly.

U.S. Coast Guard headquarters marked the spot where the Boeing 747 wreckage hit the Atlantic Ocean at a point seven miles from the nearest Long Island beach.

Although debris is scattered for miles on the ocean floor, the Coast Guard says the aircraft crashed at 40 degrees 39 minutes north latitude and 72 degrees 38 minutes west longitude, the site of the floating fuel fire after the July 17 disaster.

That is just about midway between the old three-mile limit from which a 1920 law measures "the high seas" and the 12-mile territorial limit President Reagan proclaimed on Dec. 27, 1988.

The old law prescribed "one marine league" from the coast as the threshhold for the high seas. A "marine league" is three nautical miles, which are each 6,076 feet

TWA Flight 800 is the only international airliner in the eight intervening years to come down between the three- and 12-mile marks, so there has been no test of whether the "high seas" threshold moved further out to sea along with the territorial limits.

An expert in aviation law who believes it did is Lorne Clark, chief counsel for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which comprises 234 airline members worldwide.

"Today, most international lawyers would say the Death on the High Seas Act applies only outside 12 miles, so they're going to have an interesting argument," Mr. Clark said.

Quick to agree was Juanita Madole of Irvine, Calif., who led plaintiff legal teams that won "willful misconduct" verdicts against Pan Am in the 1990 bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and Korean Airlines in the destruction of Flight 007 in 1983 by Soviet fighters. …

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