For five years, lawyers for families of those killed when a plane crashed into a house and the airlines they blame have prepared for trial, filing thousands of court documents, interviewing witnesses, reporting to a judge.
But with the last of more than 40 federal wrongful death claims now settled and talks ongoing in a few remaining state cases, a trial is increasingly unlikely.
That means any new details about the crash that such a public airing could expose may remain unknown as documents filed under seal stay shielded from public view.
“All of the families just want the truth to be fully disclosed and uncovered,” said Scott Maurer, whose daughter Lorin was among 50 people killed when Continental Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., stalled and crashed into a house 5 miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport in 2009.
The lawsuits claim the pilots and flight’s operators, Continental Airlines, regional carrier Colgan Air and its parent, Pinnacle Air, were reckless and caused the crash.
The claims parallel findings by the National Transportation Safety Board, which in 2010 blamed the accident on pilot error, determining that Capt. Marvin Renslow incorrectly pointed the plane’s nose up after a stall warning, causing the stall and crash.
Prodded by the victims’ families, federal officials have since issued an extensive overhaul of training requirements for pilots and made other safety-oriented aviation changes.
“We learned a lot (about the crash) through the NTSB and efforts we have made,” Maurer said. “But if there is anything we are not aware of, we want it brought out in the light of day and addressed. That is one of the objectives of the trial. Are there other things to be learned?”
One of the documents that could remain sealed without a trial is an internal safety review commissioned by Colgan less than a month after the crash. The firm Nick Sabatini & Associates interviewed mechanics, pilots and other employees and observed training classes and flights.
Colgan executives had argued the findings were privileged and irrelevant to the lawsuits, but U.S. District Judge William Skretny ruled the report was potentially relevant because it was unlikely that the culture at Colgan had significantly changed in the weeks after the crash.
The families’ lawyers also argued successfully for the cockpit voice recorder to be heard, rather than rely on the already released transcript. Video animations have been created synchronized to the recording, said Chicago attorney Robert Clifford, who represented five families in federal court.
He called it “very powerful evidence of the tragic way the passengers lived their last moments before death.”
While unresolved state Supreme Court cases are tentatively set for a November trial, Clifford said it’s unlikely any will get that far. He lamented that the case had been allowed to be “litigated in secrecy.”
“The public loses the safety benefits that come from the disclosure. Now we’ve got one more incident of sweeping the bad conduct under the rug and nobody sees it,” he said.
Terms of the settlements have not been disclosed.
The legal cases were largely stalled for 13 months by a bankruptcy filing by Pinnacle. The carrier emerged from Chapter 11 a year ago as Endeavor Air, a unit of Delta Air Lines. Colgan Air stopped flying in 2012. Continental, meanwhile, merged with United Airlines in 2010.
Spokeswomen for United and Endeavor declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
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