Nearly four years have passed since the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, and families of the victims are again wondering: How much longer will their legal battle with the airline drag on?
Frustrated by delays caused by Pinnacle Airlines’ bankruptcy case in Manhattan, family members filed a motion Friday to lift a court-ordered stay on their wrongful-death suits against the airline.
Lawyers contend that the stay, which is part of the airline’s bankruptcy protection, has caused progress in the families’ lawsuits to grind to a halt.
They also contend that a trial in the case, once planned for later this year, may have to wait until 2015, which would be six years after the Feb. 12, 2009, crash that killed 50 people.
“We have asked the bankruptcy court to force the airline defendants to stop hiding behind the bankruptcy shield and come out and face the families who lost their loved ones in this avoidable catastrophe,” Terrence M. Connors, an attorney for some of the families, said in a statement.
Most of the families in the Flight 3407 case have settled their claims – sources say the settlements are in the area of seven figures – but about 18 of the original 49 suits remain unresolved.
Unlike the bankruptcy case, the wrongful-death suits are being handled here in Buffalo by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
In their motion Friday, the families outlined a series of reasons their litigation should be allowed to move forward, including the belief that Pinnacle may be ready to emerge from bankruptcy protection.
Hugh M. Russ III, an attorney for several families, said the airline recently announced plans to that effect but offered no firm timetable.
“The families are frustrated and tired of waiting,” Russ said in a statement. “The four-year anniversary of the crash approaches in less than a month. How much longer do the families have to wait?”
Pinnacle, the parent of Colgan Air, the regional carrier that owned the twin-engine turboprop plane that crashed, declined to comment on the families’ move to end the stay and resume their litigation.
Their suits against the airline stem, in large part, from a federal investigation that blamed the crash on pilot error. The families have tried to make the case that Colgan’s pilots were not well-trained and that Colgan required pilots to fly despite illness and fatigue.
Russ, who filed the motion on behalf of all the families, suggested in his papers that the court’s stay has given Pinnacle an “unfair advantage” in its litigation with the families.
The court papers say the airline has manipulated the stay to avoid acknowledging “that the circumstances of the crash should give rise to punitive damages.”
They also note that “no doubt exists concerning what caused the crash” and that it’s time for Pinnacle to acknowledge liability and move forward with the wrongful-death suits.
“Additional time has passed for the families, the fourth anniversary of the crash approaches within one month, and the families are no closer to resolving their claims,” the court papers state. “The prejudice the families experience increases with each passing day.”
Pinnacle filed for federal Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April after indicating that it was having cash-flow problems. Unfortunately for the families, the bankruptcy filing in Manhattan resulted in a mandatory stay on the pending lawsuits in Buffalo.
This is the second time the families have asked the bankruptcy court to lift its stay. An earlier request, made in June, was based on the assumption that Global Aerospace, Colgan’s insurer, would ultimately be responsible for any damages awarded in the lawsuits.
The court rejected that request.
The plane that crashed in Clarence was owned and operated by Colgan but flew under the Continental Connection banner. Continental, which has since merged with United Airlines, contracted with Colgan to operate Flight 3407.