NEW YORK – The Massachusetts Port Authority was dismissed Wednesday as a defendant from the last pending wrongful death lawsuit related to the Sept. 11 attacks, leaving United Airlines and a security company facing a trial where airport screening procedures are expected to go under a legal microscope.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan announced the dismissal during a daylong hearing aimed at clarifying legal issues that will be presented to a civil jury. He said the agency that operates the airport could be dropped because it was not primarily responsible for security checkpoints passengers pass through as they board planes.
He said it was likely that lawyers for Mary Bavis, whose son died in the attacks, will have to prove at trial how weapons got aboard United Airlines Flight 175. The plane took off from Boston's Logan Airport and crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower. Aboard was her son, Mark, who was a West Newton, Mass., scout for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. Mark's twin brother, Michael, attended the hearing and said afterward that the Nov. 7 trial is important to the family.
"We feel strongly that the American people know why this happened," he said. "This case has given my brother a voice and thousands of families a voice as to what happened. It's very important all the facts see the light of day."
He said he was disappointed that the port authority was dismissed from the case because the agency was "a party that could have prevented this and had a responsibility for doing so."
Massport's interim chief executive officer, David Mackey, issued a statement afterward that said: "The entire Logan Airport community will forever carry in its heart the events of 9/11. Our thoughts and prayers will always be with the victims of that tragic day."
Hellerstein said he expects to conclude that United, based in Chicago, and a security company, St. Louis-based Huntleigh USA Corp., will be required to prove how weapons could have passed through security checkpoints at Logan through no fault of the companies.
Hellerstein, who has presided over the bulk of civil litigation resulting from the terrorist attacks, said he expects to limit the time lawyers on each side can present their case and the amount that can be said about a day when 19 terrorists hijacked four planes, flying two into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, one into the Pentagon and one into a field in Pennsylvania.
"I don't envision the trial as just a recitation of everything that happened on 9/11 and that it couldn't have happened without negligence," he said.
He said he would also limit evidence to what the airline and security company knew or should have known rather than what other federal agencies such as the FBI and CIA knew or should have known.
The judge also said he will likely rule that the plaintiffs can seek damages for terror that Bavis experienced before the plane crashed in the event they prove that security lapses occurred and that the companies are liable.
Lawyers for United and Huntleigh declined to comment about the dismissal of Massport.
The judge seemed to be setting legal standards for the trial that will permit the plaintiffs to present their evidence, Bavis' lawyer, Donald Migliori, said outside court.
He said the evidence includes interviews with every airport screener who processed people for the flight, including 10 who did not know that there was a security alert that indicated a possible terrorist threat. He said four screeners could not identify Mace when it was handed to them during depositions.
Flight 175 had 56 passengers, including five hijackers, and nine crew members when it took off, Migliori told Hellerstein at the start of the hearing. He said two passengers reported that hijackers had knives and there was a report of a bomb on board as well. He said the last call made by a passenger to relatives reported that Mace was used by the hijackers to force passengers to the back of the plane and that some passengers were getting sick.
Jeffrey Ellis, a lawyer for United, said the airline followed federal security procedures and could not be held responsible if some hijackers managed to sneak weapons onto the flight.
"The equipment, just like humans, has limits," he said of screening machines.
Michael Feagley, another United lawyer, told the judge the plaintiffs will not be able to prove what weapons were on board the plane.
He said the plaintiffs would not be able to prove that 9/11 is the "kind of event that never occurs without negligence."
He said if they can't meet their burden of proof, "that's just the way life shakes out sometimes."