Lion Air victims get payout after Boeing settlement cash vanishes

US law firm takes rare step of compensating families after California lawyer fails to hand over settlement money.

An investigator collects the Lion Air crash victims' belongings at the scene of the accident.
A US law firm has paid out compensation to families of the victims of Indonesia’s Lion Air crash after a California lawyer failed to hand over the full amount of a settlement with Boeing [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Medan, Indonesia – A US law firm has taken the rare step of compensating families of the victims of Indonesia’s Lion Air crash after the relatives’ California lawyer failed to pay them the full amount of their settlement with Boeing.

Chicago-based Edelson PC paid at least $2m to five families after learning now-defunct Girardi & Keese had failed to pay out funds won in a settlement against the manufacturer of the doomed 737 Max plane that crashed into the Java Sea in 2018.

In a lawsuit filed in California in 2020, Edelson PC alleged that Tom Girardi, a prominent personal injury lawyer, and his wife Erika Jayne Girardi had misappropriated the victims’ money to fund the couple’s “outrageous lifestyles […] in the glitz-and-glam world of Hollywood and Beverly Hills”.

Girardi & Keese had engaged Edelson PC to sue Boeing on behalf of the families.

“For our firm, the idea that the Lion Air families would be left waiting and wondering if Tom Girardi would be able to pay their restitution was simply unacceptable,” Alex Tievsky, a lawyer at Edelson PC, told Al Jazeera.

“They have already been through more than any family should have to bear. We have reimbursed them for the full amount that they lost, and we are going to pursue the people we believe to be responsible on our own.”

Girardi, who is best known for winning the $460m settlement that inspired the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, declared bankruptcy in January last year before entering a conservatorship after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Girardi was disbarred in June.

Erika Jayne Girardi, who stars in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reality series, filed for divorce in November 2020 and has denied any knowledge of misappropriated funds.

Girardi & Keese and Erika Jayne did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests to comment.

Looking for answers

Bias Ramadhan, whose mother Hasna died in the crash, said he had received the money sent to him by Edelson PC at the beginning of July, and that he was grateful that the firm had acted so swiftly. But he said he was left with questions about how such a situation could have been allowed to happen.

“When I looked Girardi up on the internet before I chose him as my legal counsel, there was absolutely no negative information about him at all, only positive articles about his work and good news stories,” Ramadhan told Al Jazeera.

“If you asked me to explain this to someone, I couldn’t do it.”

Ramadhan’s mother was one of the 189 people killed when Lion Air Flight 610 crashed shortly after takeoff from Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta due to a flaw in the aircraft’s flight stabilisation programme.

Ramadhan initially didn’t think that his mother, who worked as a high court judge, was on board as she had made her way to the airport six hours before he received news of the crash.

“I tried to stay calm and hoped that it was maybe just a water landing, but then someone said that human remains had been found, like a head or something,” he said. “They actually reported it like that initially.”

Ramadhan said that, after the crash, he had been contacted by about 20 lawyers and law firms, whom he described as “ambulance chasers”, who offered to represent his family.

A Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
Relatives of the victims of Lion Air Flight 610 sued Boeing over the crash [File: Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters]

Alvin Lie, the head of the  Indonesian Air Transportation Service User Association, said that unscrupulous behaviour is not uncommon after accidents where compensation may be sought.

“There are so many American lawyers who immediately act following crashes like this anywhere in the world and offer their services,” Lie told Al Jazeera. “They are often called vultures because they find families who are in turmoil and who are not thinking straight, and tell them that they will represent them at no cost and that they will only take a fee if they are successful, and it is usually a substantial fee at that.”

Lie said the embezzlement of funds meant for victims was a recurring problem in high-profile tragedies.

“However, it is the right of everyone to choose their own legal representation, so it is difficult for the Indonesian government to get involved in these kinds of situations as this is a personal choice,” he said.

“If the government did get involved, who would be responsible? The Transportation Ministry, the Law and Human Rights Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry? The best we can do is learn from this incident and be wary of unethical lawyers like Girardi.”

Tievsky, the Edelson PC lawyer, said his firm would continue to pursue Girardi & Keese to reclaim the missing funds and that the scandal had been a source of great shame for those involved in the Lion Air litigation.

“Judge Durkin [the judge who presided over the case against Girardi & Keese] said that this situation was an embarrassment to the whole legal community,” he said. “I agree with him.”

Source: Al Jazeera