Under a treaty governing deaths and injuries aboard international flights, airlines are required to compensate relatives of victims for proven damages of up to a limit currently set at about $157,000 — regardless of what caused the crash.
But higher compensation is possible if a carrier is held liable.
"So more or less you will have unlimited financial damage," said Marco Abate, a German aviation lawyer.
To avoid liability, a carrier has to prove that the crash wasn't due to "negligence or other wrongful act" by its employees, according to Article 21 of the 1999 Montreal Convention.
That would be a difficult argument to make when a pilot intentionally crashes a plane into a mountain, and one that Lufthansa would likely avoid as it could further damage the brand, Abate said.
Investigators say the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 locked himself into the cockpit and slammed the Airbus A320 into the Alps. Germanwings is a subsidiary of Lufthansa.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr on Thursday said the airline would honour "international arrangements regulating liability" and noted that it already has offered immediate financial aid to anyone requiring. He didn't mention any figures.
How much the airline ends up paying in compensation will depend on where claims are filed. The options in this case, a German flight en route from Barcelona to Duesseldorf, are many, said Dutch lawyer Sander de Lang.
"For example, French law because that is where it ... crashed, German law because in most cases the passengers had return tickets to and from Germany. But some people may have bought tickets in Spain, then Spanish law could be appropriate," he said.
In some countries including the Netherlands, there's no compensation for emotional suffering, he said.
Damages are typically much lower in Europe than in the U.S., where in domestic air crashes, juries have awarded plaintiffs sometimes millions of dollars per passenger.
The families of the three American victims could sue the airline in U.S. courts. Article 33 of the Montreal Convention states that a passenger's "principal and permanent residence" is used to determine jurisdiction for lawsuits regarding passenger deaths or injuries.
Abate said that in German courts, damages for pain and suffering typically don't exceed 10,000 euros ($11,000). However, Lufthansa could face much bigger claims for loss of financial support. If the breadwinner of a family was killed in a plane crash, the survivors can sue for years of lost income, Abate said.
Several analysts said Lufthansa will probably reach settlements with relatives of victims to avoid going to court.
Once the shock and grief subsides, the compensation issues should be resolved quickly, said Wouter Munten, a Dutch lawyer representing relatives of victims of last year's downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine.
"People always say take your time for grief," he said. "But not everyone has the luxury to wait. Children have to be fed and go to school."
Associated Press writer Michael Corder in The Hague and Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.
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