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French court clears Continental of Concorde crash

By Thierry Lévêque

VERSAILLES, France (Reuters) - Continental Airlines was cleared on Thursday of criminal responsibility for the Concorde crash in Paris in 2000 that killed 113 people, with a French court also absolving a mechanic at the U.S. airline of involuntary manslaughter.

The appeals court ruling, over a decade after the accident that helped to spell the end of the supersonic airliner, found Continental civilly responsible, opening the door to compensation payments to the families of those killed and to the Concorde's operator, Air France .

Rejecting an alternative scenario presented by the airline's lawyer, the court confirmed that the crash was caused by a metal strip that fell from a Continental DC-10 aircraft onto the runway just before the Concorde took off.

The court found that Continental welder John Taylor had flouted industry norms and used titanium to forge the piece, which shredded the Concorde's tire, causing bits of rubber to damage the plane's propulsion system and spark the fatal fire.

However, it ruled that this was not criminal - as neither Taylor nor Continental could have predicted the devastating result. It overturned his 15-month suspended prison sentence.

"During 12 years, we have wrongly accused an airline. The trial concluded today and finally we have the truth," said Continental's lawyer Olivier Metzner.

Continental, now part of United Continental Holdings , had been ordered under the original ruling to pay 70 percent of any damages payable to families of the victims. Airbus parent EADS - the successor to Aerospatiale, the French half of the Concorde manufacturer - would have to pay the other 30 percent.

The crash sped up the demise of the droop-nosed Concorde - the fastest commercial airliner in history and a symbol of Franco-British co-operation - as safety concerns coupled with an economic downturn after the September 11 attacks in 2001 drove away its wealthy customers.

The Air France Concorde, carrying mostly German tourists bound for a Caribbean cruise, was taking off from Paris on July 25, 2000, when an engine caught fire.

Trailing a plume of flames, it crashed into a hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport. All 109 passengers and four people on the ground died.

After modifications, the plane returned to service but its operators, Air France and British Airways, retired it in 2003, citing high operating costs and a drop in demand.

Thursday's ruling found that Concorde had been left in service for too long due to "political pressure" surrounding the prestigious but unprofitable aircraft. It did not provide further details.

Concorde's wings and the landing gear were never modified despite a string of incidents in the 1980s and 1990s, it said.

(Editing by Mark John and Alison Williams)

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