Families suing over the 2009 plane crash of a Continental Connection flight into a house near Buffalo, which killed 50 people, will be allowed to pursue unlimited punitive damages from the flight's operators, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge William Skretny had to decide whether Virginia law _ which caps punitive damages at $350,000 _ should apply in the wrongful-death lawsuits because flight operator Colgan Air was based in Virginia at the time of the crash, or whether New York law should apply, since that's where Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed. New York has no cap.
Skretny decided for New York law, siding with attorneys for passengers' families and against Colgan and the regional carrier's parent company, Pinnacle Airlines Corp.
"Plaintiffs maintain that punitive damages are in order because defendants recklessly operated Flight 3407 in New York with deficient, unfit pilots who lacked the fundamental knowledge and ability to safely operate the Q400 aircraft," Skretny wrote. "New York therefore has a compelling interest in seeing its punitive damages law applied."
He also noted that Colgan, which is now based in Tennessee, interviewed and tested pilot Marvin Renslow in New York and maintains bases at other New York airports.
The decision "sends the correct message to not only Colgan but other airlines that they cannot assume they're going to be protected by the limits of liability of the state where they are headquartered," said attorney Justin Green of Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which represents some of the families.
The judge, however, ruled in favor of Colgan and Pinnacle on another issue, finding that federal standards, rather than state law, should prevail in measuring aviation safety and aircraft operations. The airlines successfully argued that the Federal Aviation Act passed by Congress was meant to set the standards for airline safety and should pre-empt any individual state law.
The Newark-to-Buffalo flight crashed into a house in the suburb of Clarence upon approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Feb. 12, 2009. All 49 people on board and a man in the house were killed. Federal safety investigators said pilot error led the plane to stall and crash.
More than 40 lawsuits have been filed in federal court in Buffalo, about a dozen of which have been settled. Cases that don't settle are expected to go to trial in March 2012.