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U.S. Judge Dismisses Belgian Suit

February 8, 2000

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ Relatives of five Belgians killed when a Marine jet sliced through a ski gondola cable in the Italian Alps cannot seek damages in the United States, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

While sympathizing with the families, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard said their only recourse is through a NATO agreement covering NATO forces in foreign countries.

To allow the families to sue in the United States ``could conceivably undercut the treaty and create a cause of action for any overseas military accident,″ he said.

Twenty people were killed in 1998 when a low-flying EA-6B Prowler severed the cable and sent a ski gondola crashing to the ground.

The relatives’ attorney, Torrence Armstrong, argued that while the accident occurred overseas, several problems had roots in the United States: a faulty altitude gauge on the jet, outdated maps and inadequate flight crew training.

Armstrong said he would appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

``I think the real tragedy is that the United States is not accepting responsibility for this and is hiding behind the NATO agreement,″ Armstrong said.

He said he would seek $6 million to $6.5 million for each of the five victims if the case went to trial.

In December, the Italian Senate approved up to $2 million for each family, with the U.S. government paying $1.5 million of each settlement. The money has not yet been distributed.

A military jury at Camp Lejeune acquitted the jet’s pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, of manslaughter, but he served several months in prison and was dismissed from the Marine Corps for helping destroy a videotape of the flight. The jet’s navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, also was dismissed over the videotape. Charges were dropped against two back-seat crewmen.

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