The court found the US airline criminally responsible for the Paris crash in 2000, caused by a piece of metal that fell from a Continental DC-10 and later shredded the supersonic jet’s tyre, which led to a fire in the fuel tank.
Continental was ordered to pay a fine of €200,000 for the crash and to pay Concorde’s operator Air France €1 million in damages.
The judge gave Continental employee John Taylor a 15-month suspended jail sentence for having incorrectly manufactured and installed the titanium strip.
His supervisor Stanley Ford, accused of approving Taylor’s work without checking it, was acquitted, as were three French aviation officials, including the former head of the Concorde programme, 81-year-old Henri Perrier.
Perrier – who directed the Concorde programme at Aerospatiale, now part of EADS, from 1978 to 1994 – had been accused of ignoring warning signs from a string of incidents on Concorde planes before the accident outside Paris.
Flight 4590 to New York smashed into a hotel in a ball of fire just after take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000, killing 100 mostly German passengers and nine crew on board and four people on the ground. The German tourists has been on their way to a holiday cruise in New York.
The court said the officials were guilty of “no serious misconduct” after being accused of failing to draw lessons from exploding tyre incidents that dogged Concorde from 1979 to when the fleet was permanently grounded in 2003.
The officials had made design changes to strengthen the supersonic jet’s tyres but not the fuel tanks.
While clearing the aviation officials of criminal charges, the court ruled that EADS bears some civil responsibility and should pay 30 percent of any compensation to victims’ families.
Most of the families of the people who died in the crash agreed not to take legal action in exchange for undisclosed levels of compensation from Air France, EADS, Continental and Goodyear tyre maker.
Continental had denied that the titanium strip triggered the disaster by shredding Concorde’s tyres, with lawyer Olivier Metzner insisting the supersonic jet had already been on fire for 700 metres of runway.
Metzner swiftly said that the US airline would appeal the verdict, slamming a ruling that “only protects French interests.”
“Justice in France must be handed down in the name of the French people,” Metzner told journalists. “This morning it was handed down in the name of French patriotism.”
He maintained throughout the four-month trial hearings that ended in May that Air France’s maintenance was negligent and the plane should never have been allowed to fly.
But the court ruled that “none of the evidence collected or witness testimony corroborates” this theory, instead criticising Continental for its “defective maintenance.”
A separate suit by Air France against Continental for commercial damages has been on hold pending the outcome of the criminal trial.
The prosecution had demanded a fine of €175,000 for Continental and suspended jail terms for the two Americans as well as for Perrier, who was absent from court for health reasons.
A French accident inquiry concluded in December 2004 that the disaster was partly caused by the strip of metal that fell on the runway from the Continental plane that took off just before the supersonic jet.
The Concorde ran over the super-hard titanium strip, which shredded one tyre, causing a blow-out and sending debris flying into an engine and a fuel tank and setting it on fire, according to investigators.
During their 27 years of service, the jets suffered dozens of tyre blowouts or wheel damage that in several cases pierced the fuel tanks – a flaw that Perrier’s team and the French civil aviation were accused of missing.