Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Two Reno air race crash lawsuits moved to federal court; more expected

Lawsuits filed by a man who lost his eye and a woman who lost her husband in last year’s deadly Reno Air Race crash have been moved to federal court, and lawyers for a list of defendants in the cases say they expect at least 50 more to be filed.

An official with the Reno Air Racing Association said they hope to avoid going to trial in any case filed, and will instead try to settle cases out of court.

Sezen Altug, wife of crash victim Craig Salerno, filed a $25 million wrongful death suit in Texas state court and injured victim Gerry de Treville of Ukiah, Calif., filed suit in Washoe District Court. But lawyers for Aero-Trans Corporation, owner of the P-51 Mustang that crashed into the tarmac on Sept. 16, moved the cases to federal courts in Texas and Reno.

Officials with the Reno Air Racing Association have asked a judge to dismiss the Texas suit, arguing that they are a Nevada company and the Texas courts have no jurisdiction. They have not yet responded to the De Treville suit.

Dave Wilbern, the racing association’s business officer, said they prefer to have all cases tried in Nevada.

“It’s easier for us to deal with them here,” Wilbern said.

Wilbern said he has no idea how many cases they will ultimately face, but said they will try to settle when they can.

“We hope they never go to trial,” he said. “Why go to trial when you can settle?”

“Our insurance company tries hard to settle things, which benefits the people who are injured,” he said. “It saves money and gets funds to the people on the receiving end — the victims.”

Pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators on the ground died in the crash during an Unlimited Class race. About 70 others were injured.

The Texas lawsuit claims the Reno Air Racing Association was “motivated out of a drive for profit and a disregard for safety” making it guilty of negligence. The De Treville suit also claims the association was negligent, and says the aircraft was too dangerous to fly so close to spectators.

John Murray, a Tampa, Fla., lawyer for Aero-Trans, said he filed motions to move the cases to federal court to help streamline the process.

“There will be other cases filed,” he said. “For the ease of everyone concerned, we wanted to do this in a manner that is as expeditious as it can be. If you have a bunch of cases and every lawyer wants to take depositions and do discovery, doing the same thing over and over can be very burdensome.

“It’s easier to get together and do all of those things at one time.”

In a order signed by U.S. Magistrate Valerie Cooke detailing the discovery plan, lawyers for both sides said the cases at some point may be consolidated.

“Defense counsel believes that 50 or more additional actions may be filed,” the order said. “The parties contemplate that, in the interest of justice and judicial economy, these matters may be moved into a multi-district litigation consolidated matter.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and its report on the cause could take a year to complete, the order said. Since the NTSB has most of the evidence from the scene, and the parties can’t inspect the evidence or interview the investigation team until the report is published, the lawyers asked that the schedule be set further out.

Anthony Buzbee, Altug’s Houston-based lawyer, said he has 16 other clients who were impacted by the crash and intend to file suits, and has been in talks with 10 others. But he wants his cases heard in Texas state court.

He disputes the claim by Reno Air Racing officials that Texas courts don’t have jurisdiction. The association has numerous sponsors and many longterm contracts in Texas, he said. And while one of the defendants in the case, mechanic Richard Shanholtzer, is based in Texas , he said, others are in Florida, Washington and Nevada.

“There are multiple states involved in this and it has to be handled in one of them,” he said. “We’re already sending out formal requests for information. We’ll aggressively pursue the case.”

The question of venue will be left to the judges, he said.
NTSB Identification: WPR11MA454
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, September 16, 2011 in Reno, NV
Aircraft: NORTH AMERICAN/AERO CLASSICS P-51D, registration: N79111
Injuries: 11 Fatal,66 Serious.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On September 16, 2011, about 1626 Pacific daylight time, an experimental North America P-51D, N79111, impacted terrain following a loss of control while maneuvering at Reno Stead Airport, Reno, Nevada. The airplane was registered to Aero-Trans Corp, Ocala, Florida, and operated by the pilot as Race 177 under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The commercial pilot sustained fatal injuries; the airplane sustained substantial damage. Casualties on the ground included 10 fatalities and 74 injured. As of the time of this preliminary report, eight of the injured remain hospitalized, some in critical condition. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and no flight plan had been filed for the local air race flight, which departed from Reno Stead Airport about 10 minutes before the accident.

The airplane was participating in the Reno National Championship Air Races in the last event of the day. The airplane had completed several laps and was in a steep left turn towards the home pylon when, according to photographic evidence, the airplane suddenly banked momentarily to the left before banking to the right, turning away from the race course, and pitching to a steep nose-high attitude. Witnesses reported and photographic evidence indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers. After roll and pitch variations, the airplane descended in an extremely nose-low attitude and collided with the ground in the box seat area near the center of the grandstand seating area.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration examined the wreckage on site. They documented the debris field and identified various components of the airplane’s control system and control surfaces. The wreckage was removed to a secure storage facility for detailed examination at a later date.

The airplane’s ground crew noted that the airplane had a telemetry system that broadcast data to a ground station as well as recorded it to a box on board the airplane. The crew provided the ground station telemetry data, which includes engine parameters and global positioning satellite system data to the NTSB for analysis. The onboard data box, which sustained crush damage, was sent to the NTSB’s Vehicle Recorder laboratory for examination. Investigators recovered pieces of a camera housing and multiple detached memory cards from the airplane’s onboard camera that were in the debris field. The memory cards and numerous still and video image recordings were also sent to the Vehicle Recorders laboratory for evaluation.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Reno Air Race Association are parties to the investigation.

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