U.S. Said to Seek Boeing Guilty Plea to Avoid Trial in 737 Max Crashes

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The Justice Department plans to allow Boeing to avoid a criminal trial if it agrees to plead guilty to a fraud charge stemming from two fatal crashes of its 737 Max more than five years ago, according to two lawyers for families of the crash victims.

Federal officials shared details of the offer on a call with the families on Sunday afternoon and said the Justice Department had not yet brought the deal to Boeing, according to the lawyers, Paul G. Cassell and Mark Lindquist.

The terms include a nearly $244 million fine, a new investment in safety improvements, three years of scrutiny from an external monitor, and a meeting between Boeing’s board and the victims’ families, said Mr. Cassell, a University of Utah law professor.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while Boeing declined to comment.

Mr. Cassell, who represents more than a dozen of the families, said that he and the families found the deal to be “outrageous” and that it fell far short of what they had sought. He described the offer as a “sweetheart plea deal” because it would not force Boeing to admit fault in the deaths of the 346 people who died in the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia in late 2018 and early 2019.

“The families will strenuously object to this plea deal,” Mr. Cassell said in a statement. “The memory of 346 innocents killed by Boeing demands more justice than this.”

The Justice Department said it had planned to notify Boeing of its offer after the call, Mr. Cassell said.

The terms reportedly being offered to Boeing would update a 2021 settlement that resolved the criminal charge accusing the aerospace giant of a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration. The new agreement would require Boeing to plead guilty to that charge, according to the lawyers.

The 2021 criminal charge centered on two employees who were accused of withholding information from the F.A.A. about changes made to software known as MCAS, which was later implicated in the crashes.

Under the earlier deal, the company agreed to pay $500 million to the victims’ families. It also agreed to pay more than $1.7 billion to its customers because they could not take deliveries of the Max during a 20-month global ban on the jet.

In May, the Justice Department found that Boeing had broken the agreement by failing to adequately prevent subsequent violations of U.S. fraud laws in its operations. In a statement at the time, Boeing said it believed that it had honored the terms of the earlier agreement.

In weighing how to punish Boeing for the crashes, the Justice Department faced competing pressures to hold Boeing accountable for its failures without damaging the company, which plays an important role in the nation’s economy and national security.

The 2021 settlement angered the crash victims’ families, who have long argued that Boeing and its executives should face greater consequences, including a public trial. Many of those families have reached civil settlements with the company, though a handful are pursuing civil damage trials that are scheduled to begin late this year.

In 2022, a jury in Texas acquitted a former Boeing technical pilot, Mark A. Forkner, of defrauding two of the company’s customers, in the only criminal case the federal government brought against an individual connected to the crashes.

The Justice Department has also opened a criminal investigation into Boeing over a January flight, in which a panel blew off a Max jet operated by Alaska Airlines. No major injuries were reported, but the incident reignited concerns among lawmakers and the public about the quality of Boeing jets.

Mark Walker contributed reporting.



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