French court overturns Concorde crash conviction

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Versailles, France:

A French appeals court has overturned a manslaughter conviction against Continental Airlines for the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people, ruling Thursday that mistakes by the company's mechanics were not enough to make it legally responsible for the deaths.

The crash hastened the end for the already-faltering supersonic Concorde, synonymous with high-tech luxury but a commercial failure. The program, jointly operated by Air France and British Airways, was taken out of service in 2003.

In the July 25, 2000, accident, the jet crashed into a hotel near Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport soon after taking off, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground. Most of the victims were Germans heading to a cruise in the Caribbean.

A French court initially convicted Continental Airlines Inc. and one of its mechanics in 2010 for the crash of the Air France Concorde, and imposed about €2 million ($2.7 million) in damages and fines on the carrier.

The lower court ruled that the mechanic fitted a metal strip on a Continental DC-10 that fell onto the runway, puncturing the Concorde's tire. The burst tire sent bits of rubber into the fuel tanks, which started the fire that brought down the plane.

"This was a tragic accident and we support the court's decision that Continental did not bear fault. We have long maintained that neither Continental nor its employees were responsible for this tragic event and are satisfied that this verdict was overturned," Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., said in a written statement. Continental merged with United in 2010.

Parties including Air France and Continental compensated the families of most victims years ago, so financial claims were not the trial's focus — the main goal was to assign responsibility.

In the original trial, Continental and the mechanic, John Taylor, were also ordered to pay tens of thousands of euros in damages to families of a few victims in the case.

At the time, Continental lawyer Olivier Metzner argued that the U.S. airline was a convenient scapegoat and that there wasn't enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In France, unlike in many other countries, plane crashes routinely lead to trials to assign criminal responsibility — cases that often drag on for years.

In the years it took French judicial investigators to work their way to trial, amassing 80,000 pages of court documents, the Concordes were revamped, retired and finally sent to museums.

Story first published on: November 29, 2012 20:53 (IST)

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