Douglas C. Wielinski didn’t die instantly after Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into his Clarence Center home more than five years ago, the doctor who did the autopsy testified Wednesday.
Dr. Jonrika Malone said fluid and hemorrhaging in the 61-year-old victim’s lungs showed he was still alive after the plane crashed, contrary to her original opinion that death was instant.
She said her new opinion was the result of a review of slides of his lung tissue that were not available for the autopsy.
Malone, who was with the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office from 2007 to 2012, said multiple blunt force trauma to Wielinski’s chest, including rib fractures and heart bruising, caused his death, as she had stated in the autopsy report.
But she said the trauma did not immediately kill him or knock him unconscious.
As a result, she said, Wielinski would have experienced pain and suffering after the Feb. 12, 2009, crash, since he was still alive as the house burned.
Whether Wielinski died instantly, as the airlines contend, or suffered an excruciating death after the plane hit his house has emerged as a potentially key point in determining how much a jury might award his family.
Malone, who is now a forensic pathology consultant in Alabama, also testified that Wielinski’s skull was broken into pieces and that some of the pieces were missing.
She said the skull fragmentation was not the result of blunt force trauma but the product of thermal injuries. She said the fire consumed Wielinski, cooking his bones and causing his skull to fracture.
Her testimony, on behalf of the plaintiffs who she said paid her $300 an hour, came during a pretrial hearing before State Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall to determine if he will allow two medical experts for the Wielinski family to testify at the trial of their lawsuits.
The family has sued Colgan Air, which owned and operated the plane, as well as its parent, Pinnacle Airlines, and Continental Airlines, which contracted with Colgan, for compensatory damages for Wielinski’s wrongful death, his pain and suffering, his family’s injuries and their pain and suffering.
The judge ordered the hearing on the two doctors’ opinions about the cause of death because he said their finding that Wielinski had edema or fluid in the lungs, when there was no such finding in the autopsy and when no irritant was found in the victim’s airways, represents “a departure from any accepted medical practice or methodology in forensic pathology following autopsy.”
The defendants contend that Wielinski died instantly from multiple blunt force trauma when the plane crashed into his home, killing him and all 49 people aboard. They cite the autopsy report.
The plaintiffs’ experts – Drs. Joseph L. Burton and William R. Anderson – analyzed Wielinski’s tissue samples from the autopsy and found fluid in the lungs, which they say indicates he was still alive after the crash.
The defendants’ medical expert, Dr. James R. Gill, disputed the fluid finding, because he said it was not mentioned in the autopsy report and because no soot was found in Wielinski’s respiratory system.
The defendants contend that Burton and Anderson should not be allowed to testify at trial because their opinions are not supported by the autopsy report.
Burton, former medical examiner for several counties in metropolitan Atlanta who is now a forensic consultant, testified at Wednesday’s hearing that Wielinski’s body showed signs he was still alive after the crash.
He said the victim’s lungs were heavier that normal, likely due to fluid and blood accumulating there. He said his review of the lung tissue slides showed fluid. He said heat as well as heart bruising could have caused the fluid buildup.
Burton said Wielinski died from a combination of blunt force trauma to the chest and thermal injuries.
“The fire killed him,” he said.
Because of the hearing, which continues today, the trial has been postponed. It had been scheduled to begin with jury selection this week.