None of the families who signed the releases have filed suit against Boeing, limiting the company’s exposure. And the releases may also lay the groundwork for Boeing to move the cases abroad. When Boeing successfully used the strategy in the case of Mandala Airlines, it cited the fact that Indonesian families had signed similar releases as part of its argument to move the cases out of the United States.
While the legal maneuverings have been underway for a year, the issue burst into public view at the hearing before the House transportation committee.
Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, was the first to bring it up at the hearing. After Mr. Muilenburg’s initial denial, Mr. Johnson pressed him on whether he was really unaware of the strategy.
“Congressman, if I could take that question, we’ll get back to you,” Mr. Muilenburg responded. “But I don’t know the answer.”
Representative Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, then pounced on Mr. Muilenburg’s remarks.
“I’m incredulous that you don’t know whether or not your company is attempting to avoid the U.S. courts for liability regarding Lion Air,” he said. “You’re not aware of your legal strategy regarding Indonesia? You really aren’t?”
“Congressman, I’m not familiar with that strategy,” Mr. Muilenburg said.
After the hearing, lawyers for the families who lost relatives in the Lion Air crash accused Mr. Muilenburg of being either disingenuous or ill-informed about his company’s own work.
“I was astounded to see Boeing’s C.E.O. testify he was not aware of this legal issue,” said Charles Herrmann, a lawyer who is representing the families of several victims from the Lion Air crash. “Either he is concealing his knowledge, or it is just another example of how out of touch he is with what is actually going on within his company.”
Mr. DeFazio also remains skeptical of Mr. Muilenburg’s testimony.
“I don’t believe him,” Mr. DeFazio said in an interview on Friday. “He was chairman of the board as this strategy was formulated. And if he really honestly doesn’t know what their legal strategy is, that’s yet another reason to fire him.”