Monica Ribbeck Kelly Sued For Malpractice, Leaves The Country

 Aviation journalist Christine Negroni reports in Forbes that Monica Ribbeck Kelly, the lawyer who instituted “frivolous” legal proceedings after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, has herself disappeared.  Not only was the Illinois Ethics Committee after Kelly, but she was being sued by victims of an airline disaster in China for promising to file suit on behalf of victims but failing to do so before the statute of limitations expired, leaving the victim’s without any legal recourse.  It appears that Kelly has shuttered her law office and gone back to her native Peru. 

According to Negroni, maybe this is the last we see of Ribbeck: 

There are few successful days in court associated with Monica Ribbeck [Kelly]’s high-profile representation of air disaster victims.  So while her departure from the US may deprive dissatisfied clients . . . of any legal recourse, it could be the last we see of her shenanigans with the American legal system.

 

MH 370 Families File Last Minute Lawsuits Against Malaysia Airlines

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is still missing.  Before filing any lawsuits, the families of those missing would certainly prefer to know what happened. But with a strict two year statute of limitations set to expire tomorrow, the families have to file suit now or never.  So it’s not surprising that a flurry of lawsuits are being filed around the world. 

The Montreal Convention controls any lawsuits filed against Malaysia Airlines.  It allows suit to be filed against an airline in a U.S. court only if either:

  1. The passenger's ticket was issued in the United States;
  2. The passenger's journey was a round trip that started in the United States or was a one-way trip that ended in the United States; 
  3. The airline is incorporated in the United States;  
  4. The airline's principal place of business is in the United States;
  5. The United States was the passenger's permanent residence.              

Most of the passengers were Chinese, so, as expected, a number of families filed suits today in Beijing Court.  Many more filed in Malaysia.

But at least 45 plaintiffs joined in a suit filed in California federal court in a case entitled Zhang v. Malaysia Airlines Berhard.  At first blush, it wouldn’t appear that the plaintiffs can meet the Montreal Convention’s prerequisites for obtaining jurisdiction in the U.S.  For example, the passengers weren’t U.S. residents, nor is the airline’s principal place of business in the U.S.  So what’s the justification for filing here?

The plaintiffs allege that jurisdiction is proper in the U.S. because the airline is now legally “dead.”  When the person liable is dead, the Montreal Convention allows the family to sue those representing the dead entity’s estate.  Plaintiffs allege that, in this case, the entity now representing the dead airline’s estate is its insurer, Allianz Global, and that Allianz maintains offices in the United States.

[A]n action lies against Allianz after [Malaysia Airlines] was rendered defunct and dead and an action lies against those Defendants as would lie against [the airline].. . .. Defendant Allianz maintains its principle places of business in three locations in California and six other locations.

Certainly, a novel argument for access to the U.S. court system.  Expect Allianz to challenge U.S. jurisdiction almost immediately.

Ethics Committee Goes After Monica Ribbeck Kelly for "Frivolous" MH370 Filing

The Illinois Attorney Ethics Committee has filed a complaint against Monica Ribbeck Kelly, the Chicago lawyer who started legal proceedings on behalf of a passenger's family shortly after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing.  One of the problems for Kelly is that the missing passenger's parents denied that they ever authorized Kelly to represent them.  

According to an ABC news story, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee also claimed in its complaint that Kelly has engaged in… conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice or bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute…”

According to the complaint, Kelly's allegations were frivolous:

[Kelly alleged] that Siregar had been a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that the aircraft had crashed, that Siregar had been killed. .[Kelly's] allegations… had no basis in fact and were frivolous, because [Kelly] knew at the time she filed the petition that no evidence had been discovered regarding the location or disposition of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.”

The ethics commission also criticizes Kelly for suggesting that a mechanical malfunction had contributed to the tragedy when committee said there was “no evidence” suggesting such a malfunction.

Full story and video at ABC News.

Judge Rules Lawyer Filing Malaysia Flight MH 370 Petition Acted Improperly

Shortly after the crash of Malaysia Flight MH 370, Monica Kelly of the Ribbeck Law Firm announced that her firm was filing litigation in Chicago seeking to preserve evidence and identify other possible defendants who might be involved in the missing Boeing’s manufacture and upkeep.  The filingMonica Kelly, Ribbeck Law generated quite a bit of fanfare and media coverage for the Ribbeck Law Firm and, at the time, the firm said that it expected to represent families of more than 50 percent of the passengers on board.

But the filing hasn’t turned out so well.  The judge has now tossed it out of court, ruling that it was improper and should never have been brought.  Further, she noted that she has tossed out previous petitions improperly filed by Ribbeck, so the firm should know better.  According to the Chicago Tribune, the judge was not amused:

Ribbeck Law had filed virtually identical petitions last year after separate fatal airplane crashes in San Francisco and Laos, and [Judge Flanagan] had dismissed both for the same reason.

“Despite these orders, the same law firm has proceeded, yet again, with the filing of the (Malaysia crash) petition, knowing full well there is no basis to do so,” Flanagan wrote.

The judge said she “will impose sanctions” if Ribbeck Law continues to make such filings.

According to another article in the Tribune, Ribbeck and Kelly have been in trouble before:

Last year, after the Asiana crash, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Illinois regulators investigate the firm over allegations its attorneys violated U.S. law barring uninvited solicitation of air crash victims in the first 45 days after a crash. . .

In 2008, Kelly's brother and partner in the firm, Manuel von Ribbeck, was cited while working for another firm he allegedly posed as a Red Cross worker when he approached a man who'd lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash in the Bahamas. . .

Kelly was recommended for censure last month for allegedly continuing to try to represent a survivor of a 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands that killed nine passengers and crew. The survivor had sent a letter terminating the relationship, records show.  

It seems Ribbeck's problems are not limited to aviation cases:

On March 20, von Ribbeck was found in civil contempt of court after he failed to set up an escrow account for child support as ordered by the judge overseeing a 2009 paternity suit filed against him in Cook County, court records show.

In the order, Judge Lionel Jean Baptiste said von Ribbeck must show up in court April 14 and pay $17,000, or a warrant could be issued for his arrest. . .

April 16 Update:  For more, see Christine Negroni's post "Flim Flam and Shenanigans"

Malaysia Airlines Must Compensate Families Regardless of Whether Flight 370 was Diverted by Crew or Hijacked

Someone changed the course of Flight MH370 and turned off the aircraft’s transponder.  Turning off an aircraft’s transponder makes it more difficult for the plane to be tracked by radar.  A hijacker with even minimal flight training would have known that. 

But there is one wrinkle.  The transponder was reportedly turned off when air traffic control was in the process of a “handoff” from Malaysian Air Traffic Control to Ho Chi Minh City Control in Vietnam.  At that moment, the aircraft was in the shadows: on the outskirts of Malaysian radar coverage and just entering Vietnam radar coverage.  The crew had said goodbye to Malaysian air traffic control, but hadn’t yet established contact with Ho Chi Minh City Control.  If a crew wanted to disappear, that would be an ideal time to pull it off.  Only the most sophisticated hijacker would know that.

Airline’s Obligation to Compensate Family Members

An airline’s obligation to compensate the families of those lost in the crash of an international airliner is governed by an international treaty known as the Montreal Convention.  The Montreal Convention requires the airline to compensate the families of those lost whenever the crash was the result of an “accident.” An “accident”  is defined as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”  Whether the crash was caused by a pilot’s wilful misconduct, a hijacking, or even a terrorist attack -- it doesn’t matter.  The crash counts as an accident and the airline is liable.   

Cap on Airline Liability

An airline is strictly liable for a family's loss up to 113,100 “Special Drawing Rights,” an amount equal to about $175,000. The airline can avoid liability for sums exceeding that amount only if it can prove it was totally “free from fault.” That is usually an impossible task for an airline, even if the crash was caused by a terrorist.  The air carrier can seldom show that there was nothing it could have done to avoid the accident.  It’s the problem of proving a negative.  Thus, if in fact flight 370 was lost in a crash, it’s unlikely the Convention’s “cap” on liability will come into play. 

More in my interview appearing in the Malaysian press