Top Boeing attorney who oversaw 737 MAX legal fallout to retire

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SEATTLE – Boeing continued to make changes in its top ranks Thursday, announcing the departure of the company official who oversaw all legal matters arising from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX jetliners.

J. Michael Luttig, 65, who served as counselor and senior adviser to CEO Dennis Muilenburg before the latter was fired Monday by Boeing’s board of directors, will retire, the company said Thursday. A former federal appeals court judge, Luttig also served as special adviser for the board, and Boeing said he informed the directors of his “long-considered retirement” effective the end of the year.

Interim CEO Greg Smith said Boeing is grateful to Luttig for his 14 years of work, “especially through this past challenging year for our company.”

Luttig was named to the newly created position in May, as the Chicago-based company faced an onslaught of lawsuits and a federal criminal investigation arising from the crashes. Until then, Luttig had served as Boeing’s general counsel since 2006.

His duties regarding the 737 MAX will now fall to Brett Gerry, who replaced Luttig as general counsel, according to a person familiar with the move.

Luttig’s appointment to the new position last spring reflected the complex and costly fallout stemming from the crashes, coming on the heels of statements indicating Boeing planned to take an aggressive stance in responding to lawsuits and any potential criminal allegations.

“During his 13 years of service at Boeing, Judge Luttig has built the finest legal team in the world and delivered an unparalleled record of success for the company,” Muilenburg said at the time. “Judge Luttig is not only a brilliant legal mind, but also a critical voice on all the important issues and opportunities facing our company.”

But Boeing quickly came under sharp criticism for its response to the crashes, underscored by its attempts to place blame on foreign pilots of the Lion Air plane that crashed in October 2018 off Indonesia and the Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed in that country in March, together killing 346 people. The two disasters led to the worldwide grounding of the plane in March, shortly after the second crash.

Muilenburg followed what seemed to be a lawyer-driven admit-no-wrong playbook. At an April news conference in Chicago after the company’s annual meeting, he adamantly refused to concede that any flaws in Boeing’s flight control system might have contributed to the crashes. His performance was widely regarded as a public relations disaster.

Boeing later softened its position, with Muilenburg admitting that mistakes were made in the development of the plane.

But Muilenburg fell victim to a cascade of criticism, including accusations that Boeing waited too long to deliver damaging documents to a congressional committee investigating the crashes. He is to be replaced by Boeing Chairman David Calhoun, who will take over as CEO in January.

Earlier, the Boeing board fired Kevin McAllister as head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in October, making him the first executive head to roll as a result the 737 MAX crisis.

In response to the criminal investigation, Luttig assembled a deeply connected defense team of outside lawyers to represent Boeing executives and employees.

The investigation is being conducted by Department of Justice attorneys in Washington, D.C, aided by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General and the FBI, is looking into the design and certification the MAX. So far, no criminal charges have been brought.

In a statement, Luttig said he is “eternally grateful” to Boeing for the honor of working for the company.

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