As It Happens

Ralph Nader lost his grandniece in the Ethiopian Airlines crash — now he's taking on Boeing

U.S. consumer activist Ralph Nader says his grandniece who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash was "a rising star turned into dust."

Family of Samya Stumo launch lawsuits against Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines, Rosemount Aerospace and the FAA

Samya Stumo, who died in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plane crash, was a compassionate woman with leadership potential, says her great-uncle Ralph Nader. (Stumo family via Reuters)

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U.S. consumer activist Ralph Nader says his grandniece who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash was "a rising star turned into dust."

Samya Stumo, a 24-year-old health-care analyst from Massachusetts, was among the 157 people who died on March 10 when a Boeing 737 MAX 8 nose-dived and crashed six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa.

Stumo's parents launched a lawsuit Thursday against Ethiopian Airlines, Boeing and Rosemount Aerospace Inc., which makes a part of the aircraft that is the focus of investigators. They also filed a separate claim against the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's a big loss. She was the kind of leader that we hoped to get from our young generation in our world and wanted to change the way global health was deployed," Nader told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"We had dinner with her Friday before the weekend. Twenty hours later, she was turned into dust along with 156 other innocent people because Boeing executives wouldn't let the engineers do their job and they cut those tragic deadly corners on the 737 MAX 8."

The plane was full of people trying to make the world better.- Ralph Nader, consumer rights advocate 

Boeing and the FAA both told As It Happens they don't comment on ongoing litigation. Rosemount and Ethiopian Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

In emailed statements, the FAA said its "aircraft certification processes are well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs," and Boeing extended its "heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families and loved ones of those onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302."

Flight-control system under scrutiny

Nader is calling for a consumer boycott of the Max 8, which has been under scrutiny since a Lion Air flight crashed off the coast of Indonesia under similar circumstances in October, killing 189 people.

Boeing is currently under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department along with the FBI, the U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general, and several congressional committees.

At the heart of those investigations is the role of a flight-control system known by its acronym, MCAS, which under some circumstances can automatically lower the plane's nose to prevent an aerodynamic stall.

Watch: CBC News found that the Boeing 737 Max 8 manual only mentions MCAS once:

Boeing 737 Max 8 manual mentions MCAS only once

5 years ago
Duration 4:32
Featured VideoSince the recent crashes of two Boeing 737 Max, pilots say they were kept in the dark about the existence of a key software suspected of being connected to the tragedies. CBC News has obtained a copy of the 737 MAX flight crew manual - and what’s not in it raises troubling questions about the manufacturer’s lack of disclosure.

Ethiopian investigators on Thursday released the results of its preliminary investigation into the crash, saying the pilots wrestled with controls to stay aloft but plunged to the ground after restoring a computer system that was ordering the nose down because of faulty sensor data.

"That tells me that the software monster called artificial intelligence took control of the plane from its own pilots, and the pilots had to fight this monster again and again as the software pushed the nose of the plane down and they lost the fight," Nader said. 

Boeing said on Thursday that its new software fix for its anti-stall system will give pilots the authority to override the system if it's activated by faulty sensor data.

Nader says travellers should boycott the Boeing 737 Max 8, even if the FAA approves its planned software fix. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The plane has been grounded worldwide pending the software fix, which still needs approval from the FAA and other regulators.

But Nader says that's not enough.

"These planes should be more than grounded. Boeing should recall all these planes," he said.

"It's not a software patch. It's a fundamental design of aerodynamic instability in terms of making that plane prone to stall, instead of prone-proof. That's where the focus has to be."

'The lawsuit will not be stopped by political pressure'

Thursday's lawsuit was the first filed on behalf of a U.S. victim and the first to target the airline and parts manufacturer Rosemount, in addition to Boeing.

It accuses Boeing of putting "profits over safety" and said the FAA must also be held accountable for certifying the 737 MAX.

"Those in charge of creating and selling this plane did not treat Samya as they would their own daughters," Stumo's mother Nadia Milleron said at a news conference on Thursday.

Nader says his family chose to sue because civil litigation cannot be "deterred by political restraints."

"The lawsuit will not be stopped by political pressure," he said. "That's the genius of our civil justice system, that it's going to go to trial by jury in open court. Press there. Anybody who wants to come will be there."

Nader made a lifelong career fighting for consumer rights, including in the realm of airline safety. In 1994, he co-wrote a book called Collision Course: The Truth about Airline Safety, which is highly critical of the FAA.

"I never thought it would come and strike home like that," he said. 

He said his grandniece had "leadership and compassion and intellectual rigour written all over her."

"She dropped everything to help people. It's a tremendous loss not for just her and her family, but all the people she would have saved over the next 50 years," he said. 

People from 35 countries were killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, including 18 Canadians. The victims include activists, environmentalists and aid workers. 

"The plane was full of people trying to make the world better," Nader said. "It's a loss that reverberates and affects a lot of people."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Ralph Nader produced by Chris Harbord.