Written by Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono
The families were still mourning relatives lost in the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia when they were crammed into a hotel conference room a few weeks after the crash. Sign this form, they were told by employees of the low-cost carrier, and they would receive 1.3 billion rupiah, or $91,600.
For those who lost breadwinners in the crash on Oct. 29, the money, government-mandated compensation for loss of life in an aviation accident, was welcomed.
But that amount, while not insignificant for desperate families with bills to pay and children to school, was roughly the minimum they were entitled to receive under Indonesian law.
And the conditions imposed by Lion Air before it would disburse the payments were complicated and shocking, with some legal experts questioning their legality.
To collect the money, families had to sign a pledge, called a release and discharge, that they would not pursue legal action against Lion Air, its financial backers and insurers, as well as Boeing, which manufactured the nearly brand-new 737 Max 8 plane.
Moreover, the signers promised not to disclose the terms of the agreement itself, a copy reviewed by The New York Times shows.
Yet an Indonesian aviation act from 2011 specifies that when heirs receive the government-mandated payment, they do not give up their right to pursue legal action against a carrier or other entities that may have been involved in an air accident.
“The heirs of the victims have no obligation or duty to sign any requirements, including release and discharge,” said Ahmad Sudiro, dean of the law faculty at Tarumanagara University in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. “It could be that the company is trying to be tricky. This signing has no jurisdictional basis but this is what the company is trying to force the families to do.”
The document that relatives signed included an eight-page list of hundreds of other companies, many subcontractors for Boeing, which also could not be sued if relatives were to claim the money. Boeing officials declined to comment on the agreement’s terms.
“This is a very unorthodox document from Lion Air,” said Charles Herrmann, an American lawyer who is representing clients from the Lion Air crash and who has litigated aviation accident lawsuits for decades. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Nearly five months after Flight 610 hurtled into the Java Sea, many questions remain about what caused the accident, which was followed on March 10 by the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, another nearly new Boeing Max 8, outside Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Investigations have centered on whether pilots may have been foiled by an automated system designed to prevent stalls in the Max 8 that could have pitched the plane forward into a fatal nose-dive when triggered by false data.
But for the families of the 189 people who died on Flight 610, some say their grief has been exacerbated by an effort to pressure them to accept low compensation and renounce all rights to sue.
Families said they were not allowed to take home copies of the release form to study it before signing. Some said they were prohibited from bringing their own lawyers into the room to scan the paperwork, even though the form said they “had been given the opportunity to consult with a lawyer.”
A Lion Air official videotaped the family members who signed the form, some of the signatories said.
“There was no time to read it carefully or check it,” said Latief Nurbana, a high-ranking civil servant whose 24-year-old son was killed in the crash. “It is cruel and it is illegal.” Latief is among those who refused to sign.
“The amount is small,” said Dedi Sukendar, a relative of one of the crash victims who said the family agreed to sign the release form so that the dead man’s two children could afford to continue their schooling. “But we wanted the psychological pressure to stop.”
The Indonesian Ministry of Transportation has sent letters to Lion Air reminding the carrier of its obligation to conform to aviation regulations. A few days ago, the ministry received a reply from Lion Air saying they would comply, transportation officials said.
Lion Air officials did not respond to questions about the form.
More than 20 relatives of those who died on Flight 610 have sued Boeing in the United States, including the family of the plane’s co-pilot, Harvino, who filed a suit claiming that the plane “was defective and in a condition that rendered it unreasonably dangerous for its intended use.”
Following the Ethiopian Airlines crash earlier this month, countries around the world grounded the 737 Max 8. The U.S. Department of Transportation has begun looking at investigating the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the best-selling plane model.
Pilots who flew the Max 8 said they were not adequately informed about the new automated stall-prevention system, nor were they instructed how to disable it should incorrect data prompt it to seize control of the plane and propel its nose down.
“Having two horrible accidents within months of each other has put the focus in the United States on what is going on with the Max 8 and it strengthens our position on Lion Air,” said Herrmann, who is also considering pursuing legal action against the Federal Aviation Administration for certifying the plane model.
Lion Air, which has amassed 15 major safety lapses in its 20-year history, including two fatal crashes, has a history of trying to use quick cash to make problems go away, according to government investigators, air safety regulators and people involved in previous accidents.
One former Indonesian transportation safety investigator said that a Lion Air employee once tried to hand over a black garbage bag full of cash when the investigator was probing the fatal crash of a Lion Air flight that overshot the runway in bad weather in 2004. When the investigator declined the bag of cash, Edward Sirait, now president director of the Lion Air Group, asked why the payment had been refused, the investigator said.
Such payments from Lion Air were common because transportation safety officials were poorly paid, former investigators said. A former high-level Lion Air employee confirmed that when he worked at the company, clandestine payments to government investigators, even for restaurants and prostitutes, were routine.
Sirait did not respond to a request for comment on the account of the plastic bag full of cash.
In an interview last year after the Flight 610 crash, he did not express condolences for the loss of life. He declined to discuss the unfolding investigation or maintenance logs detailing how the plane had recorded various data problems in the days preceding the crash.
“I am not an engineer,” he said. “There are so many documents that I don’t know.”
Vinni Wulandari, the sister of Harvino, the co-pilot, said that since her family sued Boeing, Lion Air has refused to pay out his pension and has not honored a verbal agreement to fund his children’s education. The company no longer is willing to meet with her, she said.
“They’ve blocked my number,” Vinni said of Lion Air’s senior management. “It’s awful how the company treats us. We are victims, too.”
Lion Air did not respond to requests for comment on her accusations.
Latief, whose son, Muhammad Luthfi Nurrandhani, was among the Lion Air 610 victims, took notice at how Tewolde GebreMariam, chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines, quickly traveled to the Flight 302 crash site and that other senior airline employees were seen comforting grieving family members.
His son, Latief said, left behind a pregnant wife, who has since given birth to a boy. In November, the family took Luthfi’s remains that were recovered from the Java Sea and buried them in Jakarta.
Two months later, health officials called and said they had more remains that they had neglected to give Latief earlier. Did he want them? Latief said he did not want to upset his wife so he had a second, tiny coffin constructed and quietly buried it without telling her.
“We are humans, not animals,” he said. “We deserve dignity.”