Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17: Putin's Money Problem

Inevitably, lawsuits will be filed over the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine.  Typically, the plaintiffs' attorneys will name as defendants just about everyone who had any connection with the shoot down and his uncle.  The airline itself will surely be a defendant.  But we know that.  What's interesting is that Vladimir Putin might, depending on circumstances, be a defendant.

In a civil lawsuit, such as those that will be filed, legal liability does not necessarily depend on proving that the defendant deliberately pulled the trigger or ordered the downing.  A person who was negligent or reckless with respect to supporting and arming the rebels in eastern Ukraine (assuming they're the ones who actually fired the missile) might have civil liability.  Information reported indicates that Flight MH 17 was following a well-established international route at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, which is typical of commercial airliners.  Just what do you think might happen if you give a bunch of Ukrainian rebels under air attack from the Ukrainian air force a missile system capable of reaching that high?

Since the Ukrainian separatists might not have the expertise to operate a missile system such as the one that evidently downed Flight MH 17, Russian personnel may have had their eyes on the radar screen and fingers on the trigger.  If so, the link to Putin may be strengthened, and his potential for personal liability increased.

If Vlad faces potential personal liability to the Flight MH 17 plaintiffs, he could have a serious money problem.  Although he denies having money stashed in the West, news reports have suggested he may control tens of billions of dollars of assets, maybe as much as $50 billion.  The plaintiffs' attorneys and the insurance companies that make payouts to MH 17 claimants have a powerful incentive to hunt down that money, if it exists.  And who knows?  Maybe they'll succeed.  In that case, Vlad could lose some or all of his hell or high water fund.

The nation of Russia, too, might be liable if it is shown to have provided the missile system.  And it's potential for liability would be heightened if Russian personnel actually operated the missile system.

There is historical precedent for holding bad actors on the international scene liable for civil liabilities.  In 1988, Libyan agents bombed Pan American Airlines Flight 103.  The next year, Libyan agents bombed a commercial airliner flown by UTA, a French airline (UTA Flight 772).  In both cases, the nation of Libya ultimately paid substantial sums of money (totaling billions of dollars) to settle civil claims. 

One big problem for Vlad is that the toothpaste is out of the tube and he can't put it back.  With the plane already shot down, all he can do is scramble to cover his butt.  Current news reports indicate that heavily armed men of uncertain identity are blocking international investigators from getting to the crash site.  Perhaps other men of uncertain identity have recovered the black box and . . . well, maybe the black box will be another victim in this tragedy.  Possibly, many bankers in Western nations are working day and night to shift assets of shadowy Russian entities to new and more obscure locations that are likely to entangle the curious in a briar patch of banking secrecy laws.  But Russia itself can't disappear, nor can it conceal all of its assets. 

The Obama administration has been accused of taking a tepid tack on sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  European nations have been criticized for being even more equivocal.  But, to make a living as a plaintiff's attorney, you have to be as shy as a great white shark.  And, unless they have accidents with poison-tipped umbrellas, plaintiffs' counsel for Flight MH 17 claimants may be relentlessly pursuing Vlad and Russia for years.

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