How the Indonesian Lion Air Crash Brought Down a US Legal Empire

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How the Indonesian Lion Air Crash Brought Down a US Legal Empire

In early 2020, the families of the Lion Air crash victims won a multi-million dollar legal settlement in a U.S. court – but the promised money never arrived.

How the Indonesian Lion Air Crash Brought Down a US Legal Empire

In this Oct. 31, 2018, file photo, relatives of passengers of a crashed Lion Air jet check personal belongings retrieved from the waters where the airplane is believed to have crashed, at Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana, File

When the famed Beverly Hills lawyer Tom Girardi was charged with defrauding clients to the tune of an eye-watering $15 million back in February, it marked a spectacular fall from grace for one of the most sought-after legal minds in the business.

Girardi, 83, made a name for himself as a fearsome Los Angeles-based personal injury lawyer who won multi-million dollar settlements for his clients and once worked as part of the team that represented the residents of Hinkley, California in their case against Pacific Gas & Electric –a case immortalized in the 2000 film “Erin Brokovich.”

Yet the legal eagle’s alleged fraud, which is thought to have spanned decades, would perhaps have never been uncovered, had it not been for an incident that took place more than 14,000 kilometers away in Indonesia.

On October 29, 2018, a Lion Air plane crashed into the Java Sea shortly after taking off from Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew aboard. The plane was a brand new 737 Max that had been purchased by the Indonesian low-cost carrier Lion Air from U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

Following the crash, it was found that the flight maneuvering system on the plane, known as MCAS, had malfunctioned, prompting the families of the victims to sue the plane’s manufacturer, then headquartered in Chicago. Five plaintiffs in the case engaged Girardi as their legal representative in the United States, and the lawyer’s firm, Girardi & Keese, in turn, sought local legal counsel in Chicago, winning a settlement of several million dollars in early 2020.

Yet the money never arrived.

Instead, the clients alleged that they were fobbed off with excuses from Girardi & Keese about why the settlement money, which had been sent to the firm’s client trust account, had yet to reach them.

Drafts of some of the letters reportedly written by Girardi make for difficult reading.

“We made an agreement with Boeing that all of the cases would be resolved. They gave us special authorization to distribute 50%. I feel fairly confident the balance will be done within 30 days. There was also a tax issue that came up that I am trying to resolve,” one of them reads.

“I got enough of the problem taken care of so we were able to release 50% of the settlement. I feel pretty good about the next payment. There are tax issues etc. I am working very hard,” says another.

At the end of 2020, the Chicago-based firm that had represented the victims on Girardi’s behalf, Edelson PC, horrified that the funds had not been transferred to the clients in full, filed a lawsuit against him and paid the families the settlement money out of their own account.

In a memorandum opinion of the case, Chicago-based Judge Thomas Durkin was scathing in his assessment of the situation, calling Girardi’s actions “a stain on the legal profession.” He continued,

All of the plaintiffs in this case were citizens and residents of another country, many of whom do not speak English and have little to no experience with American society and certainly not its court system. Most are not very well-off. They all suffered the tragic loss of family members. In need of help, they trusted American attorneys to shepherd them through the legal process and achieve at least some relief for their losses with amounts of money that are likely life-changing in their country. Girardi took advantage of vulnerable people at their most vulnerable moments, and he used the prestige of his profession, the reputation of American courts, and the imprimatur of this Court to do it. It is nearly impossible to mend such a breach of trust. 

Of the $18 million he now stands accused of embezzling from his clients, Girardi is accused of taking some $3 million from the widows and orphans of the Indonesian Lion Air crash victims –charges to which he pleaded not guilty in February.

He has also declared bankruptcy, stated that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s and entered a conservatorship in which his brother is legally responsible for him. He was also disbarred in 2022 and banned from practicing law by the State Bar of California. Currently the prosecutors in the case are wrangling over whether Girardi is mentally fit to stand trial, arguing in a recent court filing that his “seemingly rapid neurocognitive decline, as well as the timing of it, are unusual and require closer scrutiny.”

Yet whatever happens with the case, Girardi’s downfall and alleged decades of duplicity will always owe something to Indonesia and the 189 souls aboard Lion Air Flight JT 610.