WASHINGTON – A long-secret report on safety issues at Colgan Air is about to see the light of day, 4½ years after the regional airline’s Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, claiming 50 lives.
U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny late last month rejected Colgan’s request that the safety report remain confidential.
In a sealed motion filed before Skretny, Colgan argued that the safety audit – performed by Nick Sabatini & Associates, an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm – was irrelevant to the outstanding lawsuits stemming from the crash.
But the judge disagreed.
“Although Colgan may not have commissioned Sabatini to investigate the crash itself, it hired Sabatini to examine its safety culture and operations, which are unlikely to have significantly changed in the weeks just after the crash,” Skretny wrote in his order. “There can be little doubt that the Sabatini audit could, at the least, lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”
Hugh M. Russ, a lawyer for some of the families who lost loved ones in the crash, said that in the wake of Skretny’s order, he expects to see the full Sabatini report and all its accompanying evidence in the coming weeks.
The report’s impact on the remaining Flight 3407 lawsuits is likely to be profound, Russ said, adding, “I can’t believe that it will do anything other than enhance the personal damage claims if, as we suspect, the audit supports our view that Colgan regularly flew planes with tired or fatigued pilots and that its training was deficient and its manuals were deficient.”
The Sabatini audit has long been a missing piece of the puzzle in the aftermath of the Flight 3407 crash, which federal investigators blamed on pilot error.
Sabatini surveyed Colgan’s pilots and then conducted follow-up interviews. In addition, Skretny said in his order, Sabatini reviewed the airline’s training manuals and even attended some of its training sessions.
The result was “a unique and candid picture of the safety culture of Colgan,” the airline’s president at the time of the crash, Buddy Casey, said in an affidavit.
Yet it was largely a secret picture.
Only five copies of the audit were shared with top airline executives, who were not allowed to keep copies, Brian Hunt, Colgan’s vice president and general counsel, said in an affidavit.
What’s more, Colgan refused to provide the audit to the National Transportation Safety Board during its probe of the crash, citing confidentiality concerns. And the airline – now part of Endeavor Air – fought strenuously in court to keep the report secret, arguing that it included privileged information.
But that argument did not get very far with Skretny, who noted that Colgan shared the audit with the Defense Department in hopes of ensuring that the Pentagon did not cut off its contracts with the airline. “Colgan cannot voluntarily disclose information when it is to its advantage and then claim privilege from disclosure when it is not,” he said.
Colgan lawyers have also fought to prevent Christopher Monteleon, a former Federal Aviation Administration inspector who had been critical of Colgan before the crash, from being deposed. Skretny also ruled last month that the FAA whistleblower must be allowed to deliver a deposition in the remaining cases.
The crash resulted in more than 40 federal court cases. Most of the cases have been settled, but eight cases remain and are set to go to trial next March. Six cases remain in state court.