SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Officials are looking into whether some attorneys may have violated a U.S. law barring uninvited solicitation of air disaster victims in the first 45 days after an accident in connection with the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco.
The National Transportation Safety Board says it has received an unspecified number of complaints about solicitations since the July 6 accident that killed three Chinese teenage girls and injured 180.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said the complaints involved attorney websites directed at passengers of the flight and reports of attorneys approaching passengers in person to solicit business. He said the NTSB reported one firm, Chicago-based Ribbeck Law Chartered, to the Illinois agency that regulates attorneys for further investigation of its online communications and in-person meetings with passengers.
"We have investigated every report of alleged attorney misconduct we have received, and if the evidence suggests a violation we forwarded it to the appropriate state ... association for further review," Holloway said, declining to elaborate on exactly why Ribbeck was referred.
So far, Ribbeck is the only firm the NTSB has referred for further examination. Holloway declined to name or say how many other law firms the agency received complaints about.
Ribbeck attorney Monica Kelly said the firm legally and ethically obtained all its clients related to the crash and that all initiated contact with the firm, which she said has represented victims in previous airline accidents. The firm is investigating what caused the crash on behalf of 83 passengers, according to a filing in Illinois state court.
"We were invited by Chinese government officials in China and the United States, including their local diplomats, to meet their Chinese nationals to represent them," Kelly said in an email to The Associated Press. She said the firm's representative in Shanghai also was "contacted by a group of families affected by this tragedy seeking legal representation."
Kelly did not respond to additional messages from the AP requesting comment specifically related to the NTSB's action.
William Wang, Ribbeck's Shanghai-based lawyer, told the AP that he talked to passengers and their families in China.
"I told them that USA would be the right place to sue instead of China or Korea. I told them that even the ones who had not been injured could sue as well, because there could be mental effects," Wang said in an interview. "I gave them the files which had been offered by Ribbeck Law in USA, and I did the translation."
At issue is a 1996 federal law that lays out the responsibilities airline companies and the NTSB have in assisting victims and their families after an air disaster. The law was passed after victims' families complained that airline companies and the government kept them in the dark about the status of their loved ones for too long after several high-profile disasters.
The law also addressed rising complaints about unseemly attorney behavior by barring uninvited solicitations for 30 days. The moratorium was extended to 45 days in 2000. Lawyers can be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation.
It is legal for victims themselves to initiate a consultation, or hire lawyers, during the 45-day period.
"Aviation accidents are considered especially ripe for voluminous, concerted and aggressive solicitation" because of the publicity, the availability of passenger manifests and the potential for large recoveries, said Brian Havel, who heads DePaul University's International Aviation Law Institute.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General has launched solicitation probes previously and referred cases to federal prosecutors. Two attorneys each paid $5,000 to settle a case alleging they violated the 45-day rule after Colgan Flight 3407 crashed in 2009 approaching Buffalo Airport in New York, killing all 49 people aboard.
Holloway said that NTSB referred Ribbeck to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission because the "state could best address this issue."
DOT inspector general spokesman Dave Wonnenberg said the office doesn't confirm or deny the existence of investigations. James Grogan, chief counsel of the Illinois agency, also said his organization neither confirms nor denies investigations.
Bian Zhouzhou, vice consul at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, said he agreed to meet with some of Ribbeck's U.S. lawyers after Wang contacted him and asked for a meeting. Bian said he didn't facilitate any meetings between passengers and Ribbeck lawyers. Instead, he said he met briefly three weeks ago with a few lawyers in the lobby of a hotel near the San Francisco airport where many Chinese passengers were staying following the accident.
Bian said the Ribbeck lawyers described their expertise in air disaster litigation and left him with documents describing the firm's practice areas. Bian said he put the documents in a temporary office the consulate had at the hotel.
"Our consulate has the duty to forward information to our citizens who have difficulties in the United States," Bian said. He said he also has met with at least one other law firm, which he declined to name.
Wang used Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, to discuss the Asiana crash.
"Entrusted by American lawyers, I request that Asiana Airlines air crash families contact me," Wang wrote in Chinese on the morning of July 11. "This air crash happened in the United States and involves complicated legal issues. I request that families act with extra caution in the claims settlement that will follow. I hope that things will go smoothly for everyone!"
Wang later posted another message on Sina Weibo explaining that "lawyers in Chicago who specialize in air crashes" would be visiting Asiana passengers and their families at a hotel near the San Francisco airport.
"This is a good opportunity to handle the follow-up from the air crash," Wang wrote.
In an interview, Wang declined to comment on whether his blog posts may have violated the 45-day rule. However, he said that he believed the rule unfairly gives airline companies the opportunity to offer passengers settlements in amounts less than they deserve in return for the passengers relinquishing their rights to join lawsuits.
He said passengers should have the right to the best possible legal advice before entering into such an agreement.
"After the plane crash happened, if we were to strictly follow the 45-day rule and wait until the period is over, the rights of the victims and their families would have long been hurt by some greedy insurance companies, which could have fooled them into signing settlements," said Wang. "The 45-day rule is actually an unjust one for the victims."
The NTSB's Holloway would not comment on Wang's communications.
Professor Richard Zitrin, who teaches legal ethics at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, said Wang's communications may be a violation of the moratorium even though they occurred on foreign soil.
On July 15, nine days after the crash, Ribbeck filed a petition for discovery in Illinois state court against Boeing. It names 30 of the passengers the firm represents but says it is on behalf of all 83 of its clients. It's not a lawsuit but a mechanism to preserve evidence in case a lawsuit is filed, and it was the first reported court action connected to Asiana Flight 214.
AP Writer Ian Mader reported from Beijing. AP researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai and reporter Gillian Wong and news assistant Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this story.