A French court convicted Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics in Texas of manslaughter on Monday for setting off a chain of events that sent a supersonic Concorde crashing into a hotel outside Paris a decade ago, killing 113 people and marking the beginning of the sleek jet's demise.
Both mechanic John Taylor and the airline said they would appeal the long-awaited verdict, which followed 10 years of investigations.
Taylor said the case has "destroyed my life," and his lawyer complained that the little guy was forced to shoulder the blame in a case that involved big names in world aviation.
As the court in the Paris suburb of Pontoise found 42-year-old Taylor and Continental guilty of manslaughter, it ordered a 15-month suspended sentence for the mechanic and about (EURO)2 million ($2.7 million) in damages and fines for him and the company.
Continental's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, accused the French court of issuing a "patriotic" verdict that punished an American company but acquitted French officials accused of ignoring design flaws in the Concorde, a jet that could fly at twice the speed of sound and was the pride of European aviation.
The court confirmed investigators' long-standing belief that Taylor fitted a faulty metal strip on a Continental DC-10 weeks before the July 25, 2000 crash — a strip that eventually tumbled onto the runway at Charles de Gaulle and punctured an Air France Concorde's tire, sending bits of rubber hurtling into the fuel tanks and starting a fire.
The plane then slammed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 people aboard and four others on the ground. Most of the victims were Germans heading to a cruise in the Caribbean.
The crash marked the beginning of the end for the Concorde, which was a commercial dud despite its glamour, and which was retired in 2003 by its only two carriers, Air France and British Airways.
All other defendants in the case — including three former French officials and Taylor's now-retired supervisor Stanley Ford — were acquitted.
In a telephone interview from his home in Montgomery, Texas, on Monday, Taylor said that he didn't think he installed the wear strip in question. He also told The Associated Press that the case caused him "mental anguish" and "destroyed my life."
"I've been nothing but wronged since this started," said Taylor, who in August marked 20 years of employment with Continental.
Taylor, a Danish citizen who is a permanent U.S. resident, said the case has prevented him from gaining citizenship in the United States, where he has lived since age 3.
Continental defense lawyer Metzner, who argued that a fire broke out on the Concorde even before it reached the runway debris, said the ruling "protects only the interests of France.
"This has strayed far from truth, law and justice," he said. "This has privileged purely national interests."
Continental spokesman Nick Britton also said in a statement that the airline disagrees with the "absurd finding" against it and Taylor.
"Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident — and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties — shows the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France," he said, noting that Air France was state-run at the time.
While France's aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been foreseen, judicial investigators said the Concorde's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and that officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.
The court ruled, however, that though French officials had missed opportunities to improve the Concorde over the years, they could "be accused of no serious misconduct."
Several lawyers representing families of victims in the crash questioned why the court did not blame anyone in France.
Ronald Schmid, a lawyer who has represented several families of the German victims, said he was "skeptical" about the ruling.
"It bothers me that none of those responsible for Air France were sitting in the docks," he told The AP by phone from Frankfurt.
Air France, which wasn't accused of any wrongdoing, is to receive (EURO)1.08 million ($1.43 million) of damages from Continental for the negative effect the case has had on its reputation.
Continental and Taylor also were ordered to pay tens of thousands of euros (dollars) in damages to families of a few victims in the case. It was unclear how they would divide that burden.
Parties including Air France and Continental compensated the families of most victims years ago, so financial claims were not the trial's focus — the main goal was to assign responsibility.
In addition to damages in the case, the panel of judges fined Continental (EURO)202,000 ($268,000) and Taylor (EURO)2,000 ($2,650).
The fine ordered for Continental surpassed the (EURO)175,000 ($231,000) fine sought by a state prosecutor, who had requested 18-month suspended prison sentences for Taylor and his supervisor.
The prosecution also had requested a two-year suspended sentence for Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at former plane maker Aerospatiale. It argued for the acquittal of Aerospatiale engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France's civil aviation authority.
Though both Aerospatiale employees were cleared of manslaughter charges, the court ruled that European defense giant and Airbus parent company EADS, which later absorbed Aerospatiale, did bear some civil responsibility, which is why the French branch of the company was ordered to pay a fraction of the damages — (EURO)56,595 ($75,000).
Continental is now part of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., which was formed in October as the holding company owner of United and Continental Airlines Inc., which will eventually be combined into a single airline.
In France, unlike in many other countries, plane crashes routinely lead to trials to assign criminal responsibility.
The Alexandria, Virginia-based, Flight Safety Foundation argues that such trials are dangerous because they discourage aviation officials from sharing information freely out of fear that what they say could one day be used to prosecute them.
"This case was a terrible tragedy for the victims and their loved ones and the Concorde, but it is a senseless and unwise abuse of prosecutorial discretion," said Kenneth P. Quinn, a partner with Pillsbury law firm in Washington D.C., and the Flight Safety Foundation's general counsel.
In France, it is common for plane crash cases to drag on for years.
Last year, France's highest court finally confirmed the acquittal of all those originally accused of responsibility in an Air Inter crash that killed 87 people in 1992 — 17 years earlier.
Source: AP Features