Continental to appeal after French court rules it caused Concorde crash

America's Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics have been found guilty of criminal negligence in causing the French Concorde crash that killed 113 people ten years ago.

A Paris court yesterday ruled that the company and mechanic John Taylor must pay fines over the July 2000 disaster. Taylor was also given a 15-month suspended prison sentence. All other defendants were acquitted.

Continental's legal team said the firm would appeal.

Investigators said a Continental DC-10 dropped titanium debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle Airport before the Concorde took off.

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The debris cut the Concorde's tyre, hurling pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks and starting a fire. The plane then slammed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 people aboard and four others on the ground.

The airline was fined €202,000 (about 171,000) and Taylor €2,000 (about 1,700).

The court also ordered Continental to pay Air France €1 million (about 847,000).

The court said Taylor should not have used titanium, a harder metal than usual, to build a piece for the DC-10 known as a wear strip. He was also accused of improperly installing the piece that fell on to the runway.

Three former French officials also facing manslaughter charges were acquitted.

While France's aviation authority concluded that the crash could not have been foreseen, a judicial inquiry said the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.

The families of most of the crash victims were compensated several years ago, so financial claims were not the trial's focus - the main goal was to assign responsibility.

Ronald Schmid, a lawyer who has represented several families of the German victims, said that he was "sceptical" about the court's ruling.

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"It bothers me that none of those responsible for Air France were sitting in the dock," he said.

Continental's defence lawyer, Olivier Metzner, confirmed the carrier would appeal.

He denounced a ruling that he called "patriotic" for sparing the French defendants and convicting only the Americans.

He said: "This is a ruling that protects only the interests of France. This has strayed far from the truth of law and justice. This has privileged purely national interests."

Continental spokesman Nick Britton echoed that sentiment and said the airline disagreed with the "absurd finding" against it and Taylor.

"Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties shows the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France," he said, noting that Air France was state-run at the time.

Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty and a pilots' union, said the verdict was "incomprehensible" and asked why blame was heaped on Continental mechanics when French officials were aware of weaknesses on the Concorde around two decades before the crash.

"This trial made clear that the Concorde, this superb plane, suffered from severe technical insufficiencies, problems with the fuel tanks that were known since 1979," he said.

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Continental is now part of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings, formed in October as the holding company owner of United and Continental airlines, which will eventually be combined into a single airline.