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Attorneys Contact Flight 370 Families to File Lawsuits; Timeline of Flight 370; Four Weeks of Searching; Search Conditions Improve; Fading Pinger

Aired April 4, 2014 - 12:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: It's hard to imagine a more vulnerable time for the families of the passengers on Flight 370, and sadly, it did not take long for the lawyers to take full advantage and try to cash in, 17 days, to be exact.

In somewhat stereotypical fashion, American lawyers have lined up in Asia, they're there right now.

CNN's legal correspondent, Jean Casarez, looks at why these families are easy prey for what some might call money-grubbing lawyers.

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What a vulnerable time, Ashleigh.

And in 1996, the Family Assistance Act passed by Congress says in an aviation disaster, attorneys have to allow 45 days before they can make cold calls, solicit potential clients, families of victims in an aviation disaster. But that has not stopped attorneys.


CASAREZ: The images are heart-wrenching. Families of the missing slowly coming to terms with what is beginning to seem inevitable.

MD NOR YUSOF, CHAIRMAN MALAYSIA AIRLINES: We must now accept the painful reality that the aircraft is now lost.

CASAREZ: But there is also another group on sight waiting anxiously -- the lawyers, ready to scoop up clients and begin the long battle for financial compensation.

JUSTIN GREEN, AVIATION LAWYER: Right now, in Malaysia, in China, the families are being misled by some very unethical U.S. lawyers.

CASAREZ: Attorney Justin Green has tried aviation cases for 17 years. Green says he is aware of multiple U.S. law firms who are in Asia right now soliciting families from Flight MH370 earlier than United States law and ethical rules would permit.

GREEN: These lawyers launched within days, maybe even hours, of a crash, ambulance chasers, in essence, but they are ambulance chasers on a global scale. CASAREZ: How high are the stakes? A possibly limitless windfall of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars in cases that could potentially be brought against Malaysia Airlines and Boeing, among others

But a legal victory is by no means guaranteed. And there are many legal challenges that grieving family members may not understand. They can recover some moneys $100,000 to $160,000 with a death certificate. But to really be compensated, they've got to show airline responsibility for the disaster.

Where is that evidence? And for the manufacturer of Boeing, the same thing, what evidence shows their wrongdoing?

In fact, one firm already initiated a suit in Illinois. The judge threw it out as improper and warned attorneys not to do it again.

GAIL SALTZ, PSYCHIATRIST: These families don't have closure.

CASAREZ: Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, says the lack of answers makes grieving relatives especially vulnerable.

SALTZ: So if someone comes in and says, well, we have someone to hold accountable right. We're going to hold the airline accountable or this country accountable and we're going to sue them and punish them for what happened

That, unfortunately. is very appealing to anyone who is struggling with, you know, I want someone to be responsible for this. I want to blame them and I want them to pay.


CASAREZ: And Justin Green, who is president of the International Air and Transportation Safety Bar Association, says this federal law from 1996 doesn't specifically go to aviation disasters on the high seas.

So that's how, Ashleigh, attorneys can proceed to fly over to Malaysia, because U.S. attorneys are doing it, and to confront these family members to say, I can launch an investigation, I can get you all of the answers that you want.

BANFIELD: But just tell me quickly, not every ambulance chaser who has, you know, dollar signs in his or her eyes is going to be successful at this, correct?

CASAREZ: No, there are specific firms that specialize in aviation disasters, no question. But if it's an American lawyer, they are supposed to wait, and state professional rules of responsibility can come in, too.

BANFIELD: Joining in on the conversation along with Jean Casarez is CNN's legal analyst Paul Callan, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, as well, but also with us CNN commentator and defense attorney, Mel Robbins. All right, Paul, to you first, I've always thought if you don't have the evidence and you can't specifically blame one entity, say, Rolls- Royce or Boeing or Malaysian Airlines or the Malaysian government, if you can't pinpoint the blame, the best defense is for all of those parties to blame each other.

Is that the same here?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Of course, that's very, very true, but I think what's astonishing here is that these lawyers are trying so hard to sign up clients that, even though they don't know what caused the accident, they're filing lawsuits.

This Chicago law firm that Jean was just talking about actually filed a lawsuit in Chicago against, presumably, Boeing and other entities, because it's a Boeing plane. But we don't know if it was -- there was a defect in the plane. We still know nothing how the accident happened.

BANFIELD: But they got smacked down by a judge not because they were heartless. They got smacked down because of a technicality.

CALLAN: Well, yes. And I think the bigger issue is, you can't sue somebody just because they made an airplane. You have to prove negligence.

BANFIELD: Don't you also have to prove the jurisdiction, Mel? I don't understand you can just willy-nilly pick a country and go for it.

MEL ROBBINS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Hold on a second. First of all, I really object to us saying all these lawyers are ambulance chasers.

BANFIELD: Correct.

ROBBINS: There is a totally different perspective which I have about this.

In an international disaster on this scale, passengers are not only -- the survivors of the passengers and the crew, by the way, are not only dealing with their grief, this is a massively complicated lawsuit to bring.

First of all, you have the Montreal Convention, which entitles them to up to $174,000, which is discretionary. You have five different locations that you could possibly bring your claim under the Montreal Convention. You have insurance if the passengers and the crew had life insurance. You have worker's comp for the crew, because they're not covered under the Montreal Convention.

You have the possibility of suing the Malaysian government, because it's a government-owned airline, so Lord knows how that lawsuit is going to go. And then, of course, you've got the possibility of suing Boeing, Rolls and other manufacturers.

This is not the kind of situation where the typical family overseas is going to have the wherewithal, the resources or the understanding of something that's tremendously complicated.

BANFIELD: I think you bring up a really good point. There are some very credible attorneys that do very credible work, and alongside those, there are some with 30-second commercials that run in Florida that should be disbarred.

And some of those people who jumped on airplanes to go and put their talons into some family members, knowing full well they may not have a jurisdiction --

CALLAN: Should you be approaching these crying families in Chinese hotel rooms to try to sign them up? They'll figure out a way to find a good lawyer when this -- when the dust settles in this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the psychiatrists say --

ROBBINS: And there'll be somebody -- but because somebody is there 45 days later versus there when there's so much uncertainty, I don't think that that makes them unethical.

CALLAN: I think it makes American lawyers look terrible.

BANFIELD: Mel Robbins and Jean Casarez and Paul Callan, I would always say that you are the ones I want representing me, three of the finest lawyers right here, on the table, correspondents and lawyers, too. Thank you to all of you.

Four weeks ago today at this very moment, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was sitting on a runway, think about that for a moment, preparing for what should have been a routine takeoff and was.

But today, we know nothing after that was routine after that at all. And now it comes down to math to try to solve the enigma of where that plane ended up. How does math change so much in 28 days?


BANFIELD: If you look at the clock on your wall wherever you are right now, Eastern time, it is effectively two seconds to 12:41 p.m. We've hit it.

12:41 Eastern time on March 8th, Flight 370 departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Not long after that, it vanished, throwing the families of all 239 people on board into turmoil.

We are exactly to the second at the four-week mark, and CNN's Jim Clancy has been reporting from Kuala Lumpur since that plane disappeared.

Here is his look back at the major developments, the timeline, of this mystery.


JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: The story of Flight 370 began at the arrival gate in Beijing, where it was listed as delayed, some six hours after it disappeared over the South China Sea.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": And we have breaking news right now. Malaysia Airlines confirms it has lost contact with a plane carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

Flight MH-370 was headed to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It was a Boeing 777-200. It was expected to land at 6:30 a.m., local time. Now, it's almost 9:00 in the morning in Beijing right now. That means that plane is two-and-a-half hours late.

CLANCY: The confusion, concern and fear at that hour completely predictable. Everyone dreaded the worst, a terrible accident.

AHMAD JAUHARI YAHYA, CEO, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: Malaysia Airlines confirmed that this flight, MH-370. lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 a.m., this morning.

JAMES CHIN, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR, MONASH UNIVERSITY: Most people at that initial stage thought that it was a straight forward crash and that it had come down somewhere south of Vietnam, and that the wreckage would be found very, very quickly. So a lot of people took a hands-off approach.

CLANCY: Malaysia waited to reveal details of its own military radar. The plane had deliberately reversed course, flying back over the Malay Peninsula on a heading toward the Indian Ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much of a turn back it made, 20 kilometers, 10?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are still looking at that.

CLANCY: Suddenly, anything became possible. Wild and intricate Internet theories fed fears of an elaborate terror plot led by two young Iranians who boarded with stolen passports. The only problem? They weren't terrorists. Just trying to begin new lives in Europe.

Suspicion soon shifted to the only people capable of flying the Boeing 777, the pilots. Captain Zaharie Shah, some expected, had practiced the stealthy turns on his home flight simulator, but analysis by the FBI of the simulator's data turned up nothing.

No claim of responsibility. No known ties to terror groups among passengers or crew. No motive supported by evidence.

Intricate analysis of satellite handshakes took the search to an area where it likely ran out of fuel. With the plane, all evidence of what really happened on its flight-data recorders.

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: We cannot be certain about success in the search for MH-370. But we can be certain that we will spare no effort that we will not rest until we have done everything we humanly can.

CLANCY: Who steered the plane off course and why? What happened inside the cockpit? Where did the aircraft go down and when will we find a trace? There is abundance of theories colliding with an absence of evidence. After four weeks here, like everyone else, I have only questions and no answers.

Jim Clancy, CNN, Kuala Lumpur.


BANFIELD: And our thanks to Jim. He has been doing some terrific reporting from southeast Asia.

CNN's aviation correspondent, Richard Quest, along with aviator and former Royal Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kay are on set with me now.

I keep coming back to this question every time we alter the search locations based on new metrics. How is it that 28 days later our math, using the same data from 28 days ago, is different?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Because it was shaky to start with, and it's at the edge of our understanding of technology and science. This is not like one plus one equals two. This is an entire new way of thinking and looking at the same data. And each time they do it, they get a little bit further in understanding.

You have to understand, Ashleigh, that they've said it again and again, they really are using data that was never intended to be used in this way.

BANFIELD: In this way.

QUEST: And therefore -- and I'm not being uncharitable when I say this or pejorative, but they are making it up as they go along. They are literally having to go back again and again and again.

BANFIELD: As it seems the searchers are forced to do, as well.

So with that information that we have now, Colonel Kay, they have refined this search to two tracks 150 miles long. What happens when they exhaust searching those tracks? What comes next?

LT. COL. MICHAEL KAY, ROYAL AIR FORCE (RET.): Ashleigh, that is the - that's the million dollar question at the moment. And what happens at the end of that search given all the refinement that we've been talking about is absolutely key to the credibility of the investigation and where we go next.

Because, effectively, what we're doing and what the investigators are doing is, they're walking themselves into a corner and they're hoping that they're going to find something in that corner. If they get there, and they look, and there's nothing there, where do we go next?

We need to keep looking at the contingency process. When we get to that point, and the investigators need to talk to the world and say we found something, people are going to say, well, what else are you looking at? And it goes back to the conversations we've been having for the last two weeks. We need to be looking outside of the search area for more evidence to corroborate why we're looking in that area in the first place, but also to the north, going back to the Inmarsat analysis. And as Richard has said, you know, this is the spoken unique analysis.

BANFIELD: In a perfect world.

KAY: But eliminate everything to the north and make sure where we're looking is absolutely spot-on.

BANFIELD: I only say in a perfect world because every guy we got is where they're supposed to be, and there aren't a lot of people to spare or ships to spare or planes to spare. I mean it's just such a desperate situation.

Colonel Kay and Richard Quest, as always, thank you both for your insight.

KAY: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Have a good weekend. And we will see you again soon. I know it.

So, I did say last week, why not just tow that towed pinger locater, even though we hadn't found the wreckage? Why not? We're just running out of time, so why not throw every piece of gear we have at this thing? Why wait? It turns out there is a good reason why we wait. And yet we are not waiting. We'll explain that in a moment.


BANFIELD: The search for Flight 370 has officially now gone under water. And that's good news because it means the high-tech pinger locater is finally in the water doing its work. It's listening for any sign of the plane, about 1,000 miles off of western Australia. We're going to talk about that equipment more in a moment. But first, Will Ripley now with some more good news about the search of the sea's surface.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: After a day of clear weather, we are now starting to see some light rain just off the coast of western Australia. And the weather, about 1,000 miles from here in the search zone we're told has been similar, relatively calm seas, which was good for search crews today because they weren't distracted by those white caps on the waves. White caps that could easily be mistaken for possible debris floating in the water.

Even though the visual season is now over for the day and these planes from a number of different countries are flying back to Pierce Air Base in Perth, we know that the underwater search, the sonar, is going to be active 24/7. Their U.S. Navy towed pinger locater behind the Australian ship, the Ocean Shield, is going to be functioning literally 24/7 underwater listening for any possible signal from the in-flight data recorders from Flight 370.

But the problem is, with all that sophisticated technology, the TPL, the submarine that's in place and then the ship that's using sonar equipment as well, all of that technology is just fine, but it needs a more narrow search area than what we have right now. And the search area needs to be about 100 times smaller for this technology to effectively locate possible debris. And those are answers that we simply don't have right now.

BANFIELD: Will Ripley, great work. He's just working night and day. And a lot of it on the water. So our thanks to him.

The black box, it's really orange, set to stop sending out this signal in just a couple of days. I'm about to show you after the break what could be on the horizon, like a black box that can call out its location to anyone who's listening for years. That's next.


BANFIELD: The search for Flight 370 has now officially gone under water, under the surface of the Indian Ocean. A giant submersible microphone is now on the hunt. And it's designed to detect what you're hearing, effectively these pings, clicking sounds from the flight data recorders. Our meteorologist Chad Myers joins me now, along with Thomas Altshuler of Teledyne Marine Systems. And that's the company that actually makes the emergency locator pingers.

Thomas, hold on if you will for a moment because, Chad, I'd just like you to lay out what we have spoken about before, but I think it bears repeating. I feel like it's just a shot in the dark when you don't know where you're looking and you have to drag that pinger locater very, very slowly, and it only covers a very slow track. But remind me of the significance of that.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's so big. 84,000 square miles is a giant area, and that's what we're looking at here. That's the pinger going back and forth. Just give you an idea. That would be all of the Great Lakes combined, except for the eastern part of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They'd have to cover and search all of the Great Lakes at that size.

So let's say they drag this thing at about four knots, five miles per hour. It's maximum width of listening, about three miles that way, three miles that way. That's stretching it, but we'll go with that. That gets you a six mile width beam. Eighty-four thousand square miles going back and forth and back and forth. It would take you over 100 days to cover all of that square footage.

BANFIELD: OK, stand by for a moment.

Thomas Altshuler, I was - I was astounded to read that your company may have actually made the pinger that could be in those black boxes that we're searching for right now, is that correct?

THOMAS ALTSHULER, V.P., TELEDYNE MARINE SYSTEMS: Well, Ashleigh, we make the pinger. We don't know which pingers are on which air frame. We sell them through a distributor. Is so it could be us. It could be another manufacturer in the U.S. BANFIELD: So, you know, we've been talking about how the time is really running out. I don't need to go any further about the battery issue with you, but I want you to show me the one that we may be talking about right now and compare it to the other example that you have with you that could be -- it could last for years and years depending on how we use it.

ALTSHULER: So this is the type of pinger that's used right now on black boxes. This or the other -

BANFIELD: I hope we haven't just lost him. Oh, that's so unfortunate. Whenever we - are we -- do we have Thomas back on Skype? Oh, rats.

Chad Myers, you're going to have to do part of the job here. He was just showing us -- at least our viewers got a view of that first pinger, which is the one we're talking about now. Possibly not exactly, because as he just mentioned, we don't know about the disbursement of the pingers among various aircraft. But that's the one on 370, effectively. It looks small, but it is somewhat mighty.

MYERS: It is mighty. It goes for a long time. Obviously, better batteries would make it last longer or it could actually be sending out other than just a ping, some type of other signal, as well, even at 12,000 feet, where we think this plane may be at the bottom of the ocean here. That's still a very deep depth to try to send anything out from there.


MYERS: Do we have him back?


MYERS: Great.

BANFIELD: And, Thomas, skip over the one that you just showed us because Chad did the job for you and tell me the one that I'm really fascinated about and that's the one that could be the wave of the future for black boxes, lasting for years. Explain how it works.

ALTSHULER: So this is called a transponder and it listens for an interrogation, a request from the tow fish that's being towed behind the ship. And when it hears that, it responds. So it sits in a -- what's called a sleep mode until it hears that. And that saves energy and allows you to last potentially two years. And then as you play with technology, you can move much further along larger, more batteries and lower frequency and last multiple years in ranges that are 10 to 20 kilometers.

BANFIELD: I'm so glad you showed it to us.

MYERS: Brilliant.

BANFIELD: I'm so glad your Skype shot came back. Thomas Altshuler. Thank you, Chad Myers. Thank you as well. And to you, the viewers, thank you for being with us this hour. Have a good weekend. My colleague Wolf Blitzer starts right now.