In the wake of Asiana Flight 214's crash landing in San Francisco, there are myriad lawsuits to come — three passengers on board were killed, scores of others injured, numerous flights canceled and an aircraft gutted.
But the first suit to be announced a week after the crash wasn't over any of the injured passengers or wrecked equipment; it was over Asiana Airlines' reputation, which the company says was damaged when a Bay Area television station aired bogus names of the pilots with racist undertones last week.
The airline announced Monday that it had retained lawyers and planned to sue KTVU-TV, which Friday wrongly identified the pilots as "Captain Sum Ting Wong" and "Wi Tu Lo." Asiana said it would not sue the National Transportation Safety Board, though the agency acknowledged that a rogue summer intern had confirmed the names for the station before they were broadcast.
"The derogatory report defamed Asiana and its pilots," Asiana spokesman Suh Ki-won said. "We made the determination that it caused great harm to our reputation."
Experts questioned the wisdom of such a lawsuit, saying that it would be an uphill battle for the airline to prove in court as well as an ill-advised public relations move.
"If any reputations were damaged in a serious way, they would be the reputations of the station and the professionals involved," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition.
Given its high profile in the news after the crash, Asiana would have a higher bar than a private citizen would to prove defamation, Pepperdine law professor Barry McDonald said. The airline would probably have to prove "actual malice" — that KTVU knowingly aired wrong names or did so with reckless disregard for the truth.
Veterans of crisis public relations said the suit would probably do the company little good in the court of public opinion.
"It's probably something they should have taken a deep breath and thought long and hard about," said Allan Mayer, a crisis management consultant and partner at New York-based firm 42West. "It can make it seem to people, 'Why aren't you concentrating on the tragedy and focusing on something like this?' "
Howard Bragman, a long-time PR professional and vice president of Reputation.com, said the company should have issued a strongly worded statement expressing shock and demanding an apology.
"It's not going to change anything in the minds of passengers or in the minds of the flying public," he said. "As offensive as what the TV station did was, and unacceptable, we're talking mountains and molehills here — people dying versus people getting offended."
Asiana's decision to sue may come from the strength of defamation laws in South Korea, where companies in the last decade or so have been eager to file suit to protect their image, experts familiar with Korean law said.
"They are very much more sensitive to losing face, and they take it much more seriously," said R. Joseph Harte, executive director of Columbia Law School's Center for Korean Legal Studies, who has worked and taught in Seoul.
Harte said he believed that Asiana had a "very viable case" that would be stronger in the U.S. because of the racial implications in the names aired by KTVU, protections that aren't similarly available in South Korean law.
The NTSB on Monday said it had "taken appropriate action to deal with the situation," declining to elaborate because it is barred from discussing personnel matters. Citing "a government official with knowledge of the situation," CNN reported that the intern who confirmed the names was no longer with the agency.
KTVU has apologized in statements and on the air, saying the station "made several mistakes when we received this information."