SHEFFIELD — The family of Samya Stumo filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday alleging that Boeing executives, in a "mad rush" to market a new model of airplane, were responsible for the deadly crash that killed the Sheffield native and 156 others.
The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, is the first filed in the U.S. in the wake of last month's Ethiopian Airlines crash.
During an emotional press conference in Chicago, members of the family and attorneys announced the seven-count suit against the manufacturer of the plane, as well as the airline and Rosemount Aerospace, the supplier of a sensor in the plane's automated system.
They have also filed a federal tort claim against the Federal Aviation Administration in the wake of what they say was a deadly mixture of flawed aircraft design and software that likely caused catastrophic flight control problems in Boeing's 737 Max 8 jet.
"This is not an accident,"said Stumo's mother, Nadia Milleron, following presentations by attorneys who alleged negligence by Boeing executives, as well as possible incompetence and collusion between the company and the FAA in the process of certifying the jets.
Samya Stumo, 24, was aboard the flight that crashed March 10 shortly after takeoff. The Mount Everett Regional High School graduate was a medical anthropologist with ThinkWell, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to revolutionizing health care systems around the world.
Five months earlier, a Lion Air jetliner went down in Indonesia, and the two crashes are believed to be linked to the same set of issues.
The suit comes amid what appears to be an extensive criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice into FAA certification of the jets, and mounting scrutiny by multiple federal agencies. A Senate investigation has begun, and whistleblowers are still emerging.
As the investigations continue, the Max 8 fleet remains grounded worldwide.
Stumo's parents, Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, and their son Adnaan Stumo, were on hand for Thursday's press conference at the headquarters of Clifford Law Offices of Chicago. The firm, along with San Francisco-based Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy is representing the family. Both firms specialize in aviation safety.
Visibly grieving, family members said that beyond losing a "binding force in our family," they hoped to prevent more of what Michael Stumo described as a plummeting jet that "buried itself into the ground going hundreds of miles per hour."
"We could not bring home her body or even fragments of her body," he said, referring to a recent visit to the crash site. "I stood there looking at the crater, feeling her. This should not happen to anyone again."
In a tweet during Thursday's press conference, Boeing Commercial Airplanes President & CEO Kevin McAllister said the company would take "any and all additional steps necessary to enhance the safety of our aircraft."
"I don't believe it," said attorney Frank Pitre, who told reporters that nothing short of independent experts should determine the fate of the Max 8.
Attorney Kevin Durkin also scoffed.
"They said it was safe after the Lion Air crash," he said of the October incident that killed all 189 people aboard.
Adnaan Stumo said that crash should have increased scrutiny of the jets immediately.
"Hundreds of people died each time," he said. "There can't be a third crash."
Claim of negligence
A preliminary report released Thursday by the Aviation Investigation Bureau indicated that Ethiopian Airlines pilots had followed Boeing's instructions but still lost control of the aircraft.
The flight control system of the Max 8 has been identified as the probable culprit in both crashes, the attorneys said.
The lawsuit contends that pilots could not override an automated system that measures the flight angle and lost control, causing the planes to nosedive.
"In a terrifying tug-of-war," said court documents.
Preliminary analysis of the black boxes of both doomed flights indicate similarities, according to numerous press reports. And attorneys for the family say that congressional hearings last week revealed more evidence that the same problem plagued both planes.
At heart of the lawsuit, Pitre said, were a series of deadly design decisions stemming from the race by Boeing to compete with an Airbus model about 10 years ago.
He said Boeing "took a shortcut" in its decision to use the same frame while changing the position of larger and more fuel-efficient engines, and the landing gear, for instance.
This changed the aerodynamics, which meant pilots had to be retrained to fly a plane that behaves differently. But instead, the company added a sensor to a system that would automatically push the nose down if it sensed too steep a flight angle, he said. And it is this system that malfunctioned, he said, leaving the pilots helpless and without proper training.
Pitre said the software essentially acts as a "Band-Aid" for poor design.
The suit also claims that the FAA didn't do its job.
"The FAA had negligently hired and/or trained its employees, and it knew or should have known [they] were unfit to perform their job duties and responsibilities, including implementing and executing inspections and testing."
It also alleges the agency's warnings to pilots and the public were inadequate.
Pitre produced a Nov. 8 email from an anonymous pilot who, after the Lion Air crash, described the flight control problem to a network of pilots and others in the aviation industry. He said there was nothing in the flight manual to address the issue. He called this "unconscionable."
"I am left to wonder; what else don't I know?" he said. "The flight manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient."
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader agrees.
Nader, Samya Stumo's great-uncle, joined the press conference by phone.
"If we don't end the cozy relationship between the patsy FAA ... and the Boeing Co., 5,000 of these fatally flawed planes will be in the air all over the world," he said.
Nader, whose 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed" targeted unsafe automobile design, said the public should boycott the Max 8 model to help keep them out of the air for good, "So that never again will software take control of a plane against its own pilots."
Now it appears Stumo's family will join Nader in doing the work he is acclaimed for.
"Profits should never come before safety," Milleron said. "Obviously, this could have been prevented. All of these people — it's not just Samya. One family lost their a whole family ... another guy lost his wife and his 1-year-old child."
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.