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As the DOJ investigates Boeing, crash victims' families wonder why it's taken so long

Boeing is under heightened scrutiny from regulators and the public after a door plug panel blew off a jet in midair two months ago. Now the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation. Several Boeing 737 Max planes under construction in Renton, Wash. are shown outside the company's plant on February 27, 2024.
Jovelle Tamayo for NPR
Boeing is under heightened scrutiny from regulators and the public after a door plug panel blew off a jet in midair two months ago. Now the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation. Several Boeing 737 Max planes under construction in Renton, Wash. are shown outside the company's plant on February 27, 2024.

WASHINGTON — When the door plug blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 in January, Mark Pegram hoped it would spark a deeper investigation of the company's conduct.

His son Sam was killed in 2019 on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the second of two Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes that killed a total of 346 people.

"We've known it for five years, and I think the rest of the world is finally waking up to it, that these weren't just isolated incidents," Mark Pegram said.

Boeing has since paid out billions of dollars in settlements. But the company and its leaders have largely avoided criminal prosecution by reaching an agreement with the Department of Justice. Many of the victims' families were furious.

Sam Pegram was one of 157 killed aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 which crashed in 2019. It was the second Boeing 737 Max 8 to crash within five months.
/ Courtesy of the Pegram family
/
Courtesy of the Pegram family
Sam Pegram was one of 157 killed aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 which crashed in 2019. It was the second Boeing 737 Max 8 to crash within five months.

"To us, that's not justice," Pegram said in an interview from London. "Nobody's really been held to account for what happened."

Boeing made big promises to the Justice Department in order to avoid prosecution after those earlier Max 8 crashes. But that deal is now facing heightened scrutiny after a door plug blew off a jet in midair.

The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation of the Alaska Airlines incident. That's a welcome development for the families of crash victims, who've been fighting in court for years to overturn what they consider a sweetheart deal.

The door plug on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 blew out over Portland, Ore. on January 5th — two days before the deal between Boeing and the DOJ was set to expire. And lawyers who represent the crash victims' families say that timing is critical.

The families are "optimistic" that the DOJ will be "more strict with how they look at this new criminal investigation from the Alaska Airlines case," said Robert Clifford, a lawyer in Chicago whose firm represents families of victims from the Max 8 crashes, as well as passengers on board Alaska Airlines 1282 when the door plug blew out.

No one was seriously injured in the most recent incident. But Clifford says the Justice Department has begun sending letters to those passengers informing them that they might be victims of a crime.

"I have seen letters to clients," Clifford said in an interview Thursday. That's an important step, he says, because it's something the Justice Department did not do after the Max 8 crashes.

Clifford and other lawyers for the crash victims argue that Boeing has violated the terms of its deal with the DOJ. If federal prosecutors agree, they could seek to extend the settlement, essentially keeping Boeing on probation even longer.

Boeing declined to comment on the investigation. The company has repeatedly promised it will focus on quality and safety.

"There's changes that need to happen. There's no doubt about it. But we're going to do so diligently," said Boeing's chief financial officer Brian West at an investor conference this week. "We won't rush or go too fast."

But lawyers for the crash victims' families say they've heard such promises before.

"Boeing promised to change its corporate culture in order to make safety a higher priority," said Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah College of Law. "But none of those promises seem to have been kept."

This National Transportation Safety Board photo shows an opening in the fuselage of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. The door plug blew off the Boeing 737 Max 9 on January 5, 2024 as it climbed through 14,000 feet.
/ NTSB via Getty Images
/
NTSB via Getty Images
This National Transportation Safety Board photo shows an opening in the fuselage of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. The door plug blew off the Boeing 737 Max 9 on January 5, 2024 as it climbed through 14,000 feet.

Cassell, a former federal judge and expert on the Crime Victims' Rights Act, is representing the families of the Max crash victims for free. He argues the Justice Department failed to consult with those families before reaching its deal with Boeing.

"It seemed like a real slap on the wrist," Cassell said, "for what has been properly described as the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history."

The families won a legal victory last February, when federal judge Reed O'Connor in Texas found that the Justice Department had violated the victims' rights. But O'Connor did not grant the families' request to nullify the deal.

The Department of Justice also declined to comment.

To Mark Pegram, whose son died in the Ethiopian crash, the DOJ's renewed interest in Boeing is long overdue.

"The more that's coming out lately, you know, the more frustrated and angry we are as family members," said Pegram, whose family is one of more than 30 represented by the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler. "To see that five years on, the culture is still there where production defects are covered up, documentation is inadequate, whistleblowers aren't being listened to, and there are huge problems there."

The family has kept fighting the case because they want accountability for Boeing's leaders, Pegram says, and because they want the company to make safe planes again.

Pegram says that's what his son would have wanted. Sam was 25 years old, and on his way to a human rights conference in Kenya, when he was killed.

"Sam was somebody who fought for justice," Mark Pegram said. "As you can imagine, it's not easy to keep giving these interviews. But the reason we do is because we want our family members' stories to be heard. They're not just a number."

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Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.