High-tech ambulance chasing?

Attorneys register EgyptAir domain names, seeking to comfort families, not attract clients.

By Anthony York

Published November 16, 1999 10:00AM (EST)

Key to the art of Web surfing is the URL crapshoot: Type in a Web address that you intuitively think may lead you to something you're looking for -- whitehouse.com, for example, or sex.com -- and see what happens. People searching for more information about the crash and investigation of EgyptAir Flight 990 are likely to wind up at a page put together by attorneys at R. Jack Clapp and Associates.

Douglas Desjardins, an attorney for the firm who specializes in aircraft litigation, insists the cyber-squatting is for the benefit of grieving families, and not simply a high-tech form of ambulance chasing. "Essentially, the idea is to create a support system on the Net for families of the victims. The intent is to turn it over to the families as soon as a victims' association is formed."

In all, Desjardins estimates that his company has registered "anywhere from 20-40 domain names, including egyptaircrash.com, flight990.com and flight990crash.com. We've grabbed anything we can think of" that relates to the crash. All of those names will point users to the same site, which features a link to the firm's home page, along with links to support groups, media outlets and government organizations involved such as the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration.

Clapp and Associates has been through this before. The firm made a similar rush to register domain names after ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades in May 1996, killing 110 people. That site has now been turned into an online memorial for crash victims, but one that sports ads from Microsoft and online travel sites.

Clapp and Associates wound up representing several families in lawsuits against ValuJet. But Desjardins said the sites are to comfort the victims' families, not to attract them as clients. If nothing else, he said, it protects the families from off-color spoof sites, which the Web is notorious for.

"People don't realize that in tragedies like this, the families are victimized by the incident, then they are re-victimized by someone making fun of it on the Internet," he said. Desjardins said he has already received an offer to sell the domain names, but declined because "those sites should belong to the families."

Just when the victims' families will form an association varies from crash to crash, Desjardins said. "Each crash has its own anatomy," he explained. "My sense is that when there's a lighting rod for the families' anger, it happens faster. In the case of the ValuJet for example, it happened very quickly," he said.

"In that case, you had as many as six culpable parties, and the company kept saying things that were infuriating the families. In the case of TWA Flight 800 [which killed 230 people off the coast of Long Island in 1996], there was so much uncertainty that it really took a lot longer for the families to get together."

Desjardins did not say whether he would be representing anybody in the EgyptAir cases that are sure to follow. While he said he has represented some foreign clients in the past, the majority of people seeking legal recourse in air disasters are Americans. "I think that's just because Americans are used to having recourse in a legal system," Desjardins said.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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