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When a large hole opens up in a plane midair, who is to blame?

Who will be held accountable for a recent mid-flight door plug blowout, and can a plane malfunction lead to criminal charges?

How Did a Hole Open Up in the Plane?

On January 5, 2024, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland, Oregon, heading to Ontario, California, but the flight didn’t make it very far. The flight took off at 4:52 pm and landed back at the same airport at 5:30 pm.

Roughly six minutes into the flight, as the plane reached an altitude of around 16,000 feet, an incident occurred. A door plug panel in the fuselage blew out, leaving a gaping hole in the passenger area of the plane.

Passengers remained in their seats as the plane turned around and landed safely. Of the 171 passengers and six crew on the plane, no one was injured.

The plane, designed and manufactured by Boeing, was delivered to Alaska Airlines in October. The door plug design on the new plane was not uncommon. The door plug covers a gap which can be used for an exit door in some interior seat layouts.

While the door plug is not an unusual feature of the plane, in this case, it was defective.

An investigation found that the construction of the door plug was incorrect. The plane was delivered to the airline carrier without four bolts needed to keep the door in place, according to reporting by Bloomberg.

Related: What to Ask During a Free Consultation with a Lawyer

What Led to Two Other Boeing Plane Crashes?

The door plug blowout is not the first time Boeing has had major aircraft incidents.

In 2019, Boeing was forced to call for the grounding of their 737 Max planes after two of the aircrafts crashed, first in Indonesia and then in Ethiopia, killing a total of 346 people.

Boeing conducted an investigation and issued updates before the planes were allowed to go back in the air. The United States government, among other task forces, also conducted their own investigations.

It was discovered that Boeing did not adequately explain how a crucial new flight control system on the plane worked, per the New York Times. The new system and failure to understand it is what led to the two plane crashes.

After the report, the United States Justice Department got involved.

Boeing’s Deal with the US Justice Department

Boeing faced a criminal charge that claimed they defrauded the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The charges centered on two employees who withheld information from the FAA about changes made to software known as MCAS.

In 2021, the United States Justice Department, in the final days of the Trump administration, worked out a deal with Boeing.

Boeing agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion in a legal settlement related to the two crashes, as reported by the New York Times. As part of the deal, Boeing had to establish a $500 million fund to compensate the families of those who died, pay a fine of nearly $244 million, and pay $1.77 billion in compensation to airline customers who had travel disruptions due to the grounding of planes.

The deal also allowed Boeing to defer the case and avoid criminal charges if they did not commit any other wrongdoing within three years.

The Boeing door plug blowout occurred just two days before the expiration of the deferred prosecution agreement.

Where Does That Leave Boeing?

The FAA is investigating Boeing’s safety practices. On February 28, the FAA gave Boeing 90 days to put together a plan to improve their quality control.

In addition to the FAA’s investigation, Boeing may again face potential criminal charges.

Because the door plug blowout happened during the time period that Boeing was to avoid any other incidents, the Justice Department is now looking to see if their previous agreement still stands. The recent incident may be a breach of contract and have broken Boeing’s commitment needed to avoid legal action, according to reporting by Bloomberg.

The FFA investigation and potential criminal case aren’t the only legal issues facing Boeing.

On January 5, six passengers who were aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 when the door plug blew filed a class action lawsuit against Boeing. And, on February 23, three other passengers sued Boeing along with Alaska Airlines for $1 billion.

Related: What’s the Difference Between a Civil and Criminal Case? 

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