There were passengers of 14 different nationalities on board the flight, Malaysia Airlines said, with the majority – 152 – Chinese. There were also 38 passengers from Malaysia, seven were Indonesian, six were from Australian and three Americans were on board, among other nationalities.
Rolfe estimated that an American court could pay out between $8-10 million on a per-passenger basis, but compensation would be a fraction of this outside of the U.S. In China, she estimated relatives would receive less than $1 million per passenger.
Allianz, the main reinsurer for the missing Malaysia Airlines yet, has already started pay out on claims relating to its disappearance, according to Reuters.
The German insurance giant would not comment on financial details, but The Telegraph reported that some $110 million had been placed in an escrow account and Allianz had agreed to make hardship payments to the relatives of those on the fight.
Where claims can be brought
The Montreal Convention dictates that a claim has to be brought in one of five places: where the carrier is domiciled; its main place of business; where the ticket was bought; the destination of the flight or the primary residence of the plaintiff.
"So for the majority of passengers on this flight, this is either China or Malaysia and these countries have very limited views of damages as opposed to America," Illinois-based aviation crash attorney Floyd Wisner told CNBC.
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"They could evaluate these cases and say a Chinese life is (of) less value than an American life. That's unfair and that's going to cause problems."
Indeed, Wisner said disparate pay-outs could lead to international backlash – especially if the plights of the families continued to be highly publicized.
"I would be raising holy hell if I was a family member of a passenger from one country getting less than someone who happened to be sitting next to me from another country," he said.
Another option open to the families is a class-action lawsuit, which would allow multiple relatives to sue over the same legal grounds.
"In theory, a class action would give the families more clout - because they're acting together rather than just as one person," Mike Burns, a lawyer who specializes in transport insurance at British law firm Weightmans, told CNBC.
"But where there's more clients, there's more money to be made - so a class action lawsuit is of massive financial benefit to the lawyers."
The airline and insurer will want to avoid this by being pro-active, he added, reassuring relatives that their individual claims will be managed swiftly and sensitively.