A judge Monday ordered attorneys in the last of the Continental Connection Flight 3407 lawsuits that are still unresolved not to talk to the media about the case, which is scheduled for jury selection and trial next Monday.
State Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall issued the gag order at the request of attorneys for Colgan Air, one of the respondents in the suits filed by the family of Douglas C. Wielinski.
Wielinski, 61, died when the plane crashed into his Clarence Center home at about 10:15 p.m. Feb. 12, 2009. The 49 people aboard the plane also were killed. Federal investigators blamed the crash on pilot error.
Colgan cited the comments of Debra A. Norton, one of the Wielinskis’ attorneys, to the media outside the courtroom last month before a pretrial hearing.
Norton told reporters that the family has been offered half of what the other victims’ families were offered to settle their suits. She said the Wielinskis should receive three or four times what the others got. She also said that disturbing information would be presented at the pretrial hearing about what happened to Wielinski that night, telling reporters that he suffered a torturous death.
At Monday’s hearing on Colgan’s gag order request, Marshall said he can’t bar attorneys from talking to the media altogether, provided that such talk doesn’t affect the ability to conduct a fair trial. He said Norton’s statements, reported in the media, led people to ask him if they were true.
“People are aware of what she said,” Marshall said, adding that her comments about a confidential matter and the cause of death, which is in dispute, pose a risk to the jury pool.
He said he had no choice but to impose a gag order, ordering all parties in the case not to talk to the media about evidence and negotiations in the case.
Colgan says Wielinski died instantly from multiple blunt-force trauma after the plane crashed into his home. But Wielinski’s family says he survived the impact and experienced excruciating pain before he died from the heat as the house burned.
Marshall also denied Colgan’s request for a hearing on Norton’s comments. He said he would love to know where she got her information on the confidential settlements.
“If she acted unethically, that is a matter for the Erie County Bar Association, not this court,” he said.
Marshall granted Colgan’s request to bar cameras from the courtroom during the trial, citing a section of the civil rights law and a state Court of Appeals ruling. He denied Colgan’s motion to have jurors sign a statement that they will not read or listen to media reports on the trial, do outside research on the case or discuss the case with others.
The Wielinski lawsuits were originally filed against Colgan Air; Pinnacle Airlines, Colgan’s parent company; Continental Airlines, which contracted with Colgan; and FlightSafety International, a flight school based at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which trained the pilot, Marvin D. Renslow, and the co-pilot, Rebecca L. Shaw.
FlightSafety International, which like The Buffalo News is a Berkshire Hathaway company, was dropped as a defendant in the suits as a result of a stipulation among all the parties.
One of the suits seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Wielinski’s wrongful death, while the others seek compensatory and punitive damages for his wife and their daughters.