Families of Germanwings Crash Victims File Suit in U.S.

A training plane at Airline Training Center Arizona in Goodyear, Ariz. Andreas Lubitz spent several months at the center, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings.

PARIS — Lawyers representing the families of dozens of victims of the crash of a Germanwings airliner in the French Alps last year filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Phoenix on Wednesday. The lawsuit accuses an Arizona flight school that trained the plane’s co-pilot of negligence for allowing him to pursue his training, despite what they contend were multiple red flags in his medical records indicating a history of mental illness.

The suit was filed with the United States District Court for Arizona against Airline Training Center Arizona, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings. Filed on behalf of the families of 80 of the 149 people who died in the crash, the suit could expose Lufthansa, Europe’s largest international airline, to several hundred millions of dollars in civil damages.

The flight school, in Goodyear, Ariz., provided the initial practical training in 2010 to Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who intentionally flew an Airbus A320 bound from Barcelona, Spain, to Düsseldorf, Germany, into a mountain range on March 24, 2015.

“Lubitz’s particular history of depression and mental instability made him a suicide time bomb,” Marc S. Moller, a partner at Kreindler & Kreindler, the New York law firm representing the families, said in a statement. “The fuse which culminated in Lubitz’s suicide,” he added, “was lit when A.T.C.A. negligently allowed him to begin commercial pilot training.”

Credit...Foto-Team-Mueller/European Pressphoto Agency

Lufthansa did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The families’ decision to pursue a civil case in the United States comes amid an inquiry by French prosecutors seeking to assign criminal responsibility for the crash. The investigation has been complicated by strict medical privacy laws in Germany that discouraged Mr. Lubitz’s doctors from alerting regulators or the airline to his deteriorating mental health in the weeks before the crash.

Lufthansa has said that it was aware of Mr. Lubitz’s history of mental illness. But the airline has maintained that it was unaware of its severity and that the decisions to readmit him to its training program — and ultimately to hire him as a pilot — were based on assessments by doctors who found him to be healthy.

Until now, most families of the victims — almost all of whom are European — have received relatively modest offers of compensation from Lufthansa in accordance with their national laws, which vary widely by country. Almost half the crash victims were citizens of Germany, where, under current law, relatives may claim only limited economic damages and are not entitled to compensation for emotional pain and suffering.

A Lufthansa offer to German relatives amounting to roughly $80,000 per victim was publicly dismissed by families as “insulting.” Many of them say they have suffered profound emotional and economic loss.

Beyond seeking increased compensation from Lufthansa, the families hope that the suit will grant them access to Lufthansa’s internal records related to Mr. Lubitz and allow them to interview Arizona flight school employees involved in his training, which spanned several months in late 2010.

In the days after the crash, Lufthansa acknowledged that Mr. Lubitz had informed them of his depression in a 2009 email seeking reinstatement to its flight-training program after he withdrew from it for nine months to seek treatment. Lufthansa subsequently put him back through its standard applicant-screening process and medical tests and allowed him to re-enter the program, which normally lasts about two years.

A critical phase of that program takes place at a Lufthansa-owned flight center near Phoenix where young pilots make their first flights in small, single-engine planes.

There is evidence suggesting that Mr. Lubitz may have tried to conceal the severity of his illness from the Federal Aviation Administration in the weeks before he arrived in Arizona — actions that led the American authorities to initially reject his application for a student pilot’s license. Mr. Lubitz ultimately provided the F.A.A. with letters from a psychologist detailing his treatment, which included the prescription of powerful antidepressants.

It is unclear whether any of the F.A.A.’s correspondence with Mr. Lubitz about his medical history was shared with the Arizona flight school at the time, or whether Lufthansa officials in Germany had alerted the school of the restrictions that had been placed on Mr. Lubitz’s German medical certificate that required doctors to report any recurrence of symptoms to regulators.

“That restriction was a clear warning that Lubitz was a man with a history of unresolved problems,” said Brian Alexander, another Kreindler & Kreindler partner who is representing the families.

The lawyers said they expected that if any such information was known to the flight school, it would be revealed through the process of pretrial discovery, which allows both parties in United States civil cases to subpoena witnesses and relevant documents.

After completing his initial practical instruction in Arizona, Mr. Lubitz returned to Germany to finish his training and receive his commercial airline pilot’s license. He was ultimately hired to fly for Germanwings in 2013.

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