Curious Partnership As Lawyers Race to Secure Lion Air Cases

November 29, 2018 / 3 Comments

What does a Harvard-educated lawyer and former U.S. prosecutor from white-shoe law firm have in common with a scrappy duo of sibling attorneys with no U.S. office or phone number on file? The brother/sister act’s most public legal experience is defending themselves from a range of complaints, contempt of court threats and ethical infractions.

Both sides of this incongruous pairing, Curtis Miner, the aforementioned Harvard man who is a partner in the Miami firm Colson, Hicks, Eidson, and Manuel von Ribbeck and his sister Monica Ribbeck Kelly are alike in their indiscriminate pursuit of aviation accident cases with the promise of a big fat payout.

Having flown to Indonesia following the October 29th crash of Lion Air flight 610, von Ribbeck is telling the families of the 189 people killed in the disaster that they are 100 percent certain to win a civil court case.

“The passenger never loses. The passenger always wins, it’s a matter of how much,” von Ribbeck told a reporter in Jakarta on Thursday, then suggested the legal awards could run between five and ten million dollars per passenger.

That’s the preamble to getting victims’ families to sign an attorney retainer agreement. If past is predictive, Manuel and Monica won’t actually do the legal work. They’re merely procurers for Colson, Hicks, Eidson which filed suit against Boeing in state court in Chicago on November 14th. This odd relationship between the 40-year-old law firm and the siblings some legal insiders have characterized as grifters, started years ago.

Check the Colson, Hicks, Eidson website and you will see the firm claims to be one of “the top litigation firms in the country.” Named partner, Mike Eidson, once served as the head of the American Trial Lawyers Association.  It makes one wonder if they’re so good, what are they doing with the Ribbecks?

A quick sample of the eyebrow-raising activities of the Ribbeck siblings shows that in 2005, Manuel was accused of pretending to be a Red Cross worker in order to cozy up and sign as a client, the surviving member of a family killed in the crash of Chalk’s Ocean Airways off the coast of Florida.

Monica has been the subject of several disciplinary hearings before the Illinois attorney regulation and disciplinary commission. She was censured in 2014 for failing to honor a client’s desire to fire her and then submitting a request for a fee when the case was settled.

In 2010, the family of Guohua Chen hired Ribbeck Law following the crash of Henan Airlines Flight 8387 in China. No suit was ever filed but by the time the Chen’s learned of the lapse it was too late to sue the manufacturer of the airplane or the airline. They tried to sue Monica for malpractice but she was no longer in the United States.

Not that Ribbeck Law Chartered had a proper office. While I was working with Brian Ross at ABC News on a story about the Ribbeck’s shenanigans following the disappearance of MH 370, he discovered the firm’s Chicago address was an empty office. Four years later, Manuel registered an address in Peru with the Illinois bar while Monica claimed to be in Montreal.

If there’s one thing in which the Ribbecks excel besides their awe-inspiring audacity it is their race to the courthouse. Being first to file a complaint generates a global tsunami of publicity and gets their names in front of the families whose business they are in the country to score. This was their modus operandi following Asiana 214 and Malaysia 370 and many other air disasters.

In Lion Air, however, Ribbeck Law Chartered didn’t file the complaint with the court in Illinois, their partner, Curtis Miner did along with Chicago attorney Austin Bartlett of Bartlett Chen.

Operating on the assumption that one is known by the company one keeps, I reached out to Eidson, Miner and Bartlett. I wanted to know why one of “the top litigation firms in the country” chose this troubling duo to represent them to grieving families.  So far, none of the three has replied to my emails.

On Thursday morning, I was called by Maria Anneke a reporter with Kompas TV in Jakarta. Having heard Manuel’s hyperbole, Anneke was worried that Lion Air families might not be getting the full story. What should the Indonesian families know, she asked.

I explained that the deep pockets of a $95 billion, multinational company like Boeing is hugely enticing to lawyers. If Boeing has some liability in the accident, and it appears it might, then it is possible that Lion Air families may be able to sue in U.S. courts even though they are not American. Without a doubt, the financial settlements would be higher here than in Indonesia.

But it is not a sure thing that the cases would remain in America, according to Justin Green, a partner with the New York aviation law firm, Kreindler & Kreindler.

“I’m not down on this case, it’s a good case. Of all the cases that should stay in the U.S., this is the one,” he told me.

It would be a mistake, however for families to believe as von Ribbeck said, “The passenger never loses. it is a matter of determining who is at fault so they can get compensation from them.”

Because it’s not that simple. In the quest to acquire clients, this is an important caveat neither the Ribbecks nor their partners at Colson, Hicks, Eidson seem interested in sharing with Lion Air families.

The pitch was about the same in 2014 when the Ribbecks claimed their suit against Boeing would garner millions. Instead, it was tossed out of court. So it was ironic when the tables turned and Boeing sued Ribbeck.

Attorney Patrick Collins at the time with Perkins Coie and now with King & Spalding, told a judge in Illinois in 2017, “Ribbeck’s business model was to basically mislead folks” by filing suits against the airplane manufacturer and using them to generate publicity. The judge ordered Ribbeck to pay a $75,000 fine to Boeing.

One week after Curtis Miner filed his suit against Boeing, Washington DC Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled that the cases against Boeing in the disappearance of MH 370 were more properly heard in Malaysia. All the promises of super-sized American awards vanished with the stroke of Judge Jackson’s pen.

That’s something von Ribbeck probably didn’t mention, but Lion Air families ought to know.

Categories: Flying Lessons

3 responses to “Curious Partnership As Lawyers Race to Secure Lion Air Cases”

  1. Yet another outstanding post, Christine. The families need to always remember the adage “buyer beware.” I think people who prey on them like this are below contemptible.

  2. Mak says:

    I have no idea what precisely was said or the context, but since the Montreal Convention provides that the carrier in a fatal crash is strictly liable for minimum damages in the amount of 100K SDRs (about US$150K per pax), its seems to me not necessarily unfair to say that some amount of money is guaranteed.

  3. Nick Mistretta says:

    I love a good morality police squad, but I’m wondering what the cutoff is? What’s the dividing line? How are we measuring ethical behavior, and who put you in charge of monitoring and reporting on it?

    If the Republican party has taught me anything, it’s that those that doth protest too much have less than altruistic reasons for doing so. Or are just plain delusional. Perhaps it’s time for another muse. This one appears to be all used up.

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