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Lawyers advise distraught families as search presses on for traces of Flight 370

A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion search plane flies past a Norwegian transport ship in the Indian Ocean, some 1500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia, during efforts to spot debris from Malaysia Flight 370, March 21, 2014.

JUSTIN BENSON-COOPER/NYT

Australian search authorities dispatched six aircraft, including a pair of long-range commercial jets, to a distant corner of the south Indian Ocean Saturday as they embarked on another day of looking for traces of a missing jetliner.

Signs of the vanished Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have continued to elude the massive international effort to find the Boeing 777, even after satellite imagery showed a pair of floating objects authorities believe may be related to the crash. On Friday, five aircraft sent to an area 2,500 kilometres southwest of Australia found nothing, despite improving weather that allowed for better visibility during 10 hours of searching.

At the same time, Australian authorities warned that the efforts may prove fruitless. "Something that was floating on the sea that long ago may no longer be floating," said Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss.

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Currents in that part of the ocean could move debris as much as 150 kilometres every five days, said Matthew England, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales.

Still, a half-dozen merchant ships have also been asked to look for wreckage, and China has directed four warships and an icebreaker to the south Indian Ocean for the search. Two-thirds of those aboard the plane were Chinese nationals and Beijing has occupied an important role in the search for the plane.

At the same time, a transcript of the radio communications from the airplane reveals nothing obviously untoward. The transcript, published by The Telegraph newspaper, did include one repeated location transmission which could be seen as "potentially odd." Malaysian authorities also confirmed that the plane's cargo included lithium ion batteries, which are deemed dangerous cargo and can pose a fire hazard.

But as the search for the plane concluded its second week with few traces of solid information, distraught families found less and less to cling to. In Beijing on Friday, hundreds of relatives came to a local hotel for a four-hour technical briefing from a special Malaysian delegation. Military and political officials, including a special envoy from the Malaysian Prime Minister, described in detail the search effort. But they offered little that has not already been broadly reported, leaving the increasingly restive group disappointed.

"There's nothing new," one man said afterward, declining to provide his name. "Every day, we are just waiting and waiting."

Now, that wait is being increasingly punctuated by visits with lawyers, as big American law firms position themselves for potentially lucrative lawsuits. Slipping through the thicket of reporters at Beijing's Lido Hotel Friday were representatives of at least two legal teams, for whom Flight 370 represents a major opportunity.

"This is the biggest since, I think, 2001," said Deon Botha, global insurance claims manager for Chicago-based Ribbeck Law Chartered, which calls itself the biggest in the world in litigating air disasters. On Nov. 12, 2001, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into Queens, N.Y., killed 260. Flight 370 had 239 people on board.

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In the week since he has arrived in Beijing from Johannesburg, Mr. Botha has spoken with roughly half the families of Chinese passengers aboard the Boeing 777.

The lawyers' first bit of advice: Don't sign anything offered by Malaysia Airlines and its lead insurer, Allianz. Airlines might offer $60,000 to $100,000 (U.S.) per person. Lawyers would sue for several million, Mr. Botha said.

The second bit of advice: If there's any chance to make a legal connection to the United States, then file suit there. With Flight 370, that link might be provided by Chicago-headquartered Boeing, which made the vanished aircraft. "You can try to sue the case in Asia, but we all know American courts are more generous and supportive to the victims," said Keke Feng, a lawyer with Motley Rice LLC, a firm based in Charleston, S.C. She flew to Beijing days after the Malaysia Airlines flight went dark.

For the lawyers, recovery of the flight's "black box" voice and data recorders is particularly important, since the information contained there can be crucial to finding out what went wrong – and, therefore, assigning blame.

But some of the crucial information may already been deleted, since cockpit voice recorders typically keep only the most recent two hours of a flight, and Flight 370 is believed to have continued flying for as much as seven hours after diverting course. In addition, a battery-powered locator "ping" used to help searchers find a submerged black box is designed to last for 30 days; half that time has now elapsed.

For the lawyers, another time matter is also a concern. U.S. law prevents lawyers from any "unsolicited communication concerning a potential action for personal injury or wrongful death" within 45 days of an aviation accident.

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But the fines are low – $1,000 per violation – and lawyers have in the past flouted it. The crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y., for example, resulted in two attorneys each paying $5,000 to settle allegations they broke the rule.

But Mr. Botha points out that the 45-day rule is "overrun" if families request to speak with lawyers, "and we've been contacted locally," he said.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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