Michael S. McGrory
Michael S. McGrory

A Cook County judge has warned a law firm to cease its tactics or face sanctions after she dismissed a petition for discovery to collect information on the as-yet-undiscovered Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The firm contends it is following standard procedure, but the vice chairman of The Chicago Bar Association’s Aviation Law Committee criticized the methods as undermining the public’s trust of attorneys in a city that plays a large role in the aviation business.

A week ago, attorney Monica R. Kelly of Ribbeck Law Chtd. filed a Rule 224 petition in Cook County Circuit Court seeking information about the missing aircraft’s technological components, naming Boeing Co. and Malaysia Airlines as respondents.

Under Illinois Supreme Court rules, a Rule 224 petition allows an injured party to begin limited discovery in order to identify who may be liable for damages before filing a complaint against a defendant.

In a four-page opinion issued in the Daley Center on Monday, Circuit Judge Kathy M. Flanagan dismissed the petition for not adhering to court rules that require action for damages once a potential defendant is identified.

It’s not the first time the court has dismissed Ribbeck Law attorneys’ improper petitions following high-profile plane crashes in the past year — but Flanagan warned the attorneys it should be their last.

“Despite these orders, the same law firm has proceeded, yet again, with the filing of the instant petition, knowing full well that there is no basis to do so,” she wrote. “Should the law firm choose to do so, the [c]ourt will impose sanctions on its’ (sic) own motion.”

Ribbeck Law filed similar petitions for discovery against aircraft manufacturers after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed short of the runway at San Francisco International Airport in July and after Lao Airlines Flight 301 crashed into the Mekong River in Laos in October. In each case, Flanagan dismissed the petitions as improper.

Mervin M. Mateo, a Ribbeck Law associate, contended the petitions are standard practice for preparing an independent action in aviation cases.

“We are planning to appeal the ruling of the judge,” he said.

The firm is working under a theory that Flight 370’s demise came from negligence in Boeing’s design or maintenance of the aircraft or in the training of the pilots, Mateo said, and it wants more information from the Chicago-based company and the airline.

SmithAmundsen LLC partner Michael S. McGrory is vice chairman of the CBA Aviation Law Committee. He doesn’t see any legal benefit to filing a motion this early before important details surface.

“At this point, without a single piece of wreckage, any idea of what occurred is pure speculation,” McGrory said.

Search teams are still scouring the southern Indian Ocean for debris three weeks after the Malaysia Airlines flight went missing March 8, shortly after leaving Kuala Lumpur with 239 passengers and crew on board. While Malaysian authorities have announced the plane crashed into the ocean, no wreckage has been recovered yet.

The only benefit to filing before facts are established, McGrory said, is that the firm can get its name into worldwide news coverage to advertise service for victims’ families in an eventual lawsuit. That approach makes the bar look bad, he said.

“I think it calls into question allegations that may have some basis that are more than pure speculation,” he said. “It reflects that certain attorneys are willing to throw pure speculation onto paper and file it with the court. I was happy to see Judge Flanagan dismiss it out of hand.”

McGrory said the petition for discovery may also be a tactic to work around a federal law that prohibits unsolicited communication by attorneys to potential personal-injury or wrongful-death clientele until 45 days after an accident.

In this case, Mateo said his firm’s client — the apparent uncle of a Flight 370 passenger — contacted the firm himself.

Mateo also said that victims’ families in China had been contacting them even prior to last week’s court filing and that several may have been referred to the firm’s office in China by plaintiffs in the firm’s Asiana Airlines Flight 214 lawsuit, currently pending in federal court.

The case is Januari Siregar vs. The Boeing Company, et al., No. 14 L 3408.