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Continental, welder guilty in Concorde crash trial

By Thierry Leveque

PONTOISE, France (Reuters) - A French court on Monday found Continental Airlines and a mechanic at the U.S. airline guilty of involuntary manslaughter for their part in the 2000 Concorde crash, in a ruling Continental called "absurd."

The verdict more than a decade after a deadly accident that spelled the end of the supersonic airliner could now affect how planes are maintained and inspected.

The court ruled that a small metal strip, which fell onto the runway from a Continental aircraft just before the Concorde took off, caused the crash, which killed 113 people.

Continental, which was fined 200,000 euros and ordered to pay Concorde's operator Air France a million euros in damages, said it would appeal a verdict it described as unfair and absurd.

Welder John Taylor was handed a 15-month suspended prison sentence for having gone against industry norms and used titanium to forge the piece that dropped off the plane.

"I do not understand how my client could be considered to have sole responsibility for the Concorde crash," lawyer Francois Esclatine told French iTele television.

Continental, which has since been swallowed to form United Continental Holdings, will have to pay 70 percent of any damages payable to families of victims, the ruling said. Airbus parent EADS would have to pay the other 30 percent.

The verdict exposes Continental and EADS to damages claims that could run to tens of millions of euros if insurance companies seek reimbursement for sums already paid to relatives.

Individual damages in such cases can reach some $3-4 million in the United States, but tend to be lower in France where damages for wrongful death are closer to $50,000 and economic losses are compensated on a strict scale, legal specialists say.

A Continental spokesman said the ruling showed "the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France ... as well as from the French authorities responsible for the Concorde's airworthiness and safety."

The crash sped up the demise of the droop-nosed Concorde -- the fastest commercial airliner in history and a symbol of Franco-British co-operation -- as safety concerns coupled with economic downturn after 9/11 drove away its wealthy customers.

CONCERN OVER CRASH TRIALS

The Air France Concorde, carrying mostly German tourists bound for a Caribbean cruise, was taking off from Paris on July 25, 2000 when an engine caught fire. Trailing a plume of flames, it crashed into a hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport.

All 109 passengers and four people on the ground died.

After modifications, the plane returned to service but its operators, Air France and British Airways, retired it in 2003.

The court said EADS, which now owns the French factories that partly built the Concorde airliners, had some civil liability in the crash, which hastened the end of an era of glamorous supersonic travel between London, Paris and New York.

EADS lawyer Simon Ndiaye said the company was still deciding whether to appeal.

Three French aviation officials, including the former head of the Concorde program, Henri Perrier, were acquitted by the court, as was Taylor's supervisor at Continental.

The trial has led to warnings in the aviation industry that taking crash investigations out of the hands of regulators and placing them in the courts could discourage workers from coming forward with information needed to prevent future accidents.

Kenneth Quinn, a former Federal Aviation Administration chief counsel who advises the Flight Safety Foundation, called the verdict "an affront to our outstanding aviation safety records" and said it could impede co-operation on plane crashes.

"If there is willful misconduct then criminal laws apply ... but attempting to put people behind bars or even handing out suspended sentences for honest mistakes is going to dry up the sources of information need to prevent the next crash."

The court in the town of Pontoise north of Paris blamed sub-standard maintenance practices for the fact that a 44 cm-long strip of titanium dropped off a Continental plane taking off before the Concorde and punctured its tires, sending debris into the Concorde's fuel tanks and sparking a fatal fire.

(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Writing by Catherine Bremer and Brian Love)

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