It’s a question that has been at heart of the Flight 3407 case since it began five years ago.
Who else is to blame for the crash that killed 50 people in Clarence Center?
Was it the fault of the two pilots in the cockpit or were the airlines who hired, trained and managed them also responsible?
It’s possible that those answers may never be known.
A federal court trial that family members of the victims saw as an opportunity to address those questions was called off Wednesday because of settlements in the case’s eight remaining lawsuits.
There is still the possibility of a state trial – there are three suits pending there – but the airlines are expected to make a strong push to settle those, as well.
“They just wear you down,” said Scott Maurer, whose daughter, Lorin, was killed in the crash. “They don’t want their airline to have to face the families.”
Maurer said he’s still eager for all of the “root causes” of the crash to come to light and is hopeful that a state court trial might reveal more about the airlines’ responsibility for the Feb. 12, 2009, disaster.
From Day One, the families have argued that Colgan Air and Continental Airlines were as responsible for the crash as the two pilots behind the controls.
They tried repeatedly to make the case that Colgan’s pilots were not well-trained and that the airline required them to fly despite illness and fatigue.
The plane that crashed in Clarence Center was owned and operated by Colgan but flew under the Continental Connection banner.
Within months of the crash, family members filed 46 wrongful-death lawsuits in federal court here. The last of those suits was settled Wednesday morning.
The settlements are confidential, but sources close to the process have indicated that most of them are in the seven-figure range.
“The concept of closure for these families is really outdated and outmoded,” said Terrence M. Connors, a lawyer in that final case. “They’ll never have closure, and no amount of compensation will ever substitute for the loss of their loved ones.”
Connors’ client, Ping Wang, a researcher at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, lost her husband, Zhaofang Guo, in the crash.
One piece of evidence that might not ever be made public, absent a trial, is the so-called Sabatini safety audit.
Hired by Colgan after the crash, Nick Sabatini & Associates, an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm, reviewed the airline’s training and safety record.
Lawyers for the families contend that Sabatini’s report would have supported their view that Colgan’s pilots were often tired or fatigued and their training subpar.
Colgan tried to keep the audit out of the court case but failed. The details of the report, which remains secret, would have been revealed during a trial.
“As a lawyer, I’d love to try this case,” Connors said. “It’s a unique case, it’s an important case, and there are issues that should be aired for the public.”
The trial also would have revealed emails, documents and testimony suggesting that the pilot, Capt. Marvin D. Renslow, was not properly trained.
The emails also indicate that Renslow’s supervisors at Colgan raised doubts about his training and qualifications just six months before the crash of Flight 3407.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board identified pilot error as the cause of the accident.
It’s no secret that family members have grown weary of the delays in the federal court case. Several of them have been outspoken in their criticism of a legal process that allowed it to continue for more than five years.
“The fact that this whole thing has taken this long is almost a second tragedy,” Maurer said Wednesday.
The eight remaining lawsuits were settled as part of a mediation effort led by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny thanked McCarthy, as well as lawyers on both sides of the case, for bringing some resolution to a disaster that affected much of the community.
“Where we are today has put to rest a very tragic event,” Skretny said. “Obviously, it’s a tribute to the lawyers and to the families who were engaged in whether to get this matter resolved.”
Officials at Colgan, which is now part of Endeavor Air, and Continental, which is now part of United Airlines, declined to comment Wednesday.