When Chicago lawyer Bob Clifford reads the reams of damaging internal messages from Boeing related to its troubled 737 Max, he wants to know where the rest of them are.
“I am openly accusing them of trying to hide the ball, of not being transparent, of being difficult to the detriment of the families,” he said.
Mr Clifford is the lead attorney in more than a hundred cases representing survivors of those killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. The jet went down six minutes after take-off a year ago on March 10, killing all 157 people on board. It was the second Max to crash in five months. Aviation regulators worldwide grounded the plane.
Since then, Boeing has repeatedly missed deadlines to return the plane to service, prompting the board to replace former chief executive Dennis Muilenburg with longtime director David Calhoun. Federal prosecutors are investigating the company. It has halted production of the Max, shaking the aerospace supply chain. The company estimates the debacle will cost $18.6bn, not including any settlements or judgments in court, which one analyst estimated at $2bn.
Under pressure from a US congressional committee, Boeing released hundreds of messages in January that showed employees ridiculing regulators and the jet itself. One said the aircraft was “designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”
But Mr Clifford, 68, believes what has been released is a fraction of what exists. Now he and the company are grappling in court over access to documents and depositions.
“When the first crash occurred, Muilenburg got a phone call, or he got an email, or he got a text from someone saying: ‘Boss, there’s been a plane crash’. We don’t have that information. Well, why not?”
Boeing declined to comment on the lawsuits but said in a statement that it “takes very seriously its legal obligations and is working with the plaintiffs in good faith, and consistent with our obligations as a technical adviser to the [US National Transportation Safety Board], to provide the information they need to pursue their claims”.
Mr Clifford has been suing Boeing and airlines for his entire career. It has been a successful one: with a reputation as the top aviation attorney in the US, he employs 25 lawyers in a downtown Chicago skyscraper. He represented plaintiffs in the crash of American Airlines Flight 191, the deadliest passenger crash in US history, as well as every other major US air disaster in the past four decades, and the 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam. He also won a $1.2bn settlement for insurance companies seeking to recover losses following the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Plaintiff lawyers typically collect up to a third of a settlement.) He is a longtime donor to Democratic politics and counts presidential primary contender Joe Biden as a friend.
Few people went to college where he grew up. The son of a carpenter and homemaker, Mr Clifford was raised on Chicago’s far South Side in a neighbourhood home to cops, fire fighters and foot soldiers for the Democratic machine. It was nicknamed Mudville, he said, because the city was slow to fix potholes sloshing with muddy water.
He showed an early aptitude for advocacy: adults and older children used to pay him to stop talking. “I got a lot of quarters,” he said. “Some people just can’t shut up.”
He worked at a lumberyard to help pay his tuition at a private high school. The yard’s owner paid for the teenager to attend a six-month course teaching salesman Dale Carnegie’s techniques. The training still helps with new clients and juries, he said.
Mr Clifford met his wife at the Catholic DePaul University and graduated from its law school in 1976. They have been married for 46 years and have two daughters.
He has a reputation for innovative legal arguments. In 2005, a Southwest Airlines jet crashed through a barrier at Midway Airport, skidding into a road, hitting a car and killing a 6-year-old child. He successfully moved the case from federal to state court — a venue that typically leads to higher damages — by arguing the airline had operated a vehicle on city streets without proper licensing.
Although most lawsuits settle, Mr Clifford said the Ethiopian Airlines case could be among the 3 per cent of cases that go to trial.
“Boeing seems to be one of those companies that is incapable of remorse, that is incapable of acknowledging accountability, is incapable of telling people they’re wrong, and they’re sorry. They pander to the idea of being sorry,” he said.
Mr Clifford is squaring off against Dan Webb, a former US attorney in Chicago who prosecuted a retired general in the Iran-Contra affair and has defended corporate titans such as General Electric, Philip Morris and Microsoft.
But even at the start of his career, Mr Clifford said he was never intimidated by the lawyers at white-shoe firms such as Mr Webb’s Winston & Strawn.
“Just because they get to charge more doesn’t mean that they’re better,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire career beating people like that.”