A French court has found Continental Airlines and a mechanic at the airline guilty of involuntary manslaughter for their part in the 2000 Concorde crash that spelled the end of the supersonic airliner.
In a ruling that could affect the way planes are maintained and inspected, the court said the US airline and a welder were to blame for a small metal strip that dropped off a Continental aircraft onto the runway and ruptured a tyre on the Concorde, causing the crash that killed 113 people.
The airline, now United Continental Holdings following a merger, and aerospace group EADS must split 70-30 any damages payable to families of victims, it said.
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.
The crash ended an era of glamorous supersonic travel between London, Paris and New York. Operators Air France and British Airways took Concorde out of service in 2003 after safety concerns hit passenger numbers.
Continental was fined 200,000 euros (NZ$350,000) and ordered to pay Concorde's operator Air France a million euros (NZ$1.75m) in damages. Welder John Taylor was given a 15-month suspended prison sentence for having gone against industry norms and used titanium to forge the piece that dropped off the plane.
Continental Airlines said it would appeal what it called an "absurd" verdict. Taylor's lawyer said he would also appeal.
"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.
The court said EADS, which now owns the French factories that partly built the Concorde airliners, had some civil liability in the crash.
EADS lawyer Simon Ndiaye said the company was still deciding whether to appeal.
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.
Three French aviation officials, including the former head of the Concorde programme, Henri Perrier, were acquitted by the court, as was Taylor's supervisor at Continental.
The officials had been criticized for failing to act on long-running concerns about the risk that exploding tyres could hit fuel tanks under the wings of Concorde, the fastest ever commercial plane and a symbol of Franco-British cooperation in aeronautical technology.
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, called Monday's verdict "an affront to our outstanding aviation safety records" and said it could impede cooperation after aircraft crashes.
"The way we honour victims of crashes is to prevent it from happening again, not enlarging the tragedy by throwing aviation professionals behind bars," said Quinn, an aviation attorney at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
The court in the town of Pontoise north of Paris blamed substandard maintenance practices for the fact that a 44cm-long strip of titanium dropped off a Continental plane taking off before the Concorde and punctured its tyres, sending debris into the Concorde's fuel tanks and sparking the fire.