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U.S. Judge Dismisses Belgian Suit Over Cable Car Tragedy

posted: 01/01/2000

Greenville, NC, Feb. 9 (AP by Estes Thompson)--A federal judge has ruled that relatives of five Belgians killed when a Marine jet severed a ski gondola cable in the Italian Alps cannot seek damages in the United States.

While sympathizing with the families, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard said Tuesday their only recourse is through a 1951 NATO agreement that governs the civil and legal activities of NATO troops in foreign countries.

To allow the families to sue in the United States ``could conceivably undercut the treaty and create a cause of action for any overseas military accident,'' he said.

The relatives' attorney, Torrence Armstrong, argued that while the accident occurred overseas, several problems had roots in the United States: a faulty altitude gauge on the jet, outdated maps and inadequate flight crew training.

Armstrong said he would appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

``I think the real tragedy is that the United States is not accepting responsibility for this and is hiding behind the NATO agreement,'' Armstrong said.

He said he would seek $6 million to $6.5 million for each of the five victims if the case went to trial.

Twenty people were killed in 1998 when a low-flying EA-6B Prowler on a NATO assignment severed the cable and sent a ski gondola crashing to the ground.

On Tuesday, Italian Premier Massimo D'Alema approved the maximum $1.9 million in damages per victim in the crash, with the United States paying 75 percent of the total.

The payments are governed by the 1951 accord covering the activities of NATO troops in foreign countries. Under the agreement, the compensation claims for the accident must be dealt with in Italy.

A military jury at Camp Lejeune acquitted the jet's pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, of manslaughter, but he served several months in prison and was dismissed from the Marine Corps for helping destroy a videotape of the flight. The jet's navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, also was dismissed over the videotape. Charges were dropped against two back-seat crewmen.

Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press

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