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ValuJet crash lawsuits have first hearing

Lawyers crowded a courtroom Friday for the first hearing on 37 lawsuits filed against ValuJet and two other companies stemming from the May 11 jetliner crash that killed 110 people.

Meanwhile, the airline modified plans for a funeral for the unidentified remains of 53 crash victims next week.

The Atlanta-based carrier had said it would bury 53 caskets in two layers in a common grave. It said Friday that it would line up the caskets in a single layer.

"One of the things we're trying to keep from emphasizing is that this is a mass burial, because for the families involved, there will be 53 individual burials," said Keenan Knopke, president of Woodlawn Park Cemetery South, the Dade County cemetery where the burial will take place Wednesday.

Since Flight 592 nose-dived into the Everglades, victims' families have filed suits in Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico seeking damages.

The complaints make basically the same accusation: The crash was caused by negligence on the part of ValuJet, SabreTech and Aerothrust Corp.

ValuJet hired Phoenix-based SabreTech to perform maintenance on the DC-9 and the company was responsible for packing expired but full oxygen canisters that were loaded on the aircraft. Investigators have said the oxygen devices may have sparked or fueled a fire that caused the crash.

Aerothrust, a Miami maintenance company, was responsible for servicing the airplane and inspecting its cargo.

If the cases result in damages awarded in Florida, the defendants will have to pay at least $555,000.

A Washington-based panel of seven federal judges will decide which federal court will rule on whether negligence by the defendants caused the fatal crash.