Two families agreed to settle wrongful-death lawsuits over the crash of Continental Airlines Connection Flight 3407, which killed 50 people.
The families of John G. Roberts III and Darren Tolsma reached the first accords stemming from the Feb. 12, 2009, crash outside Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people aboard and one on the ground, court papers show. Regional carrier Pinnacle Airlines Corp. operated the flight through its Colgan Air unit.
Tolsma, 45, was an engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp. on classified military projects. He and his wife, Robin, had two children. Roberts, 48, was a vice president at Deloitte Consulting India in Mumbai, according to his lawyer.
“Some families, when they receive a significant offer, would choose to take it and move on,” said Tolsma’s attorney James Kreindler of Kreindler & Kreindler LLP. “Most of the families will hang in and go the distance until a trial to get the sort of numbers we think are appropriate.”
Settlement terms are confidential. A trial in the other cases is set for March 2012 in federal court in Buffalo.
The families claim corporate decisions caused Captain Marvin Renslow, 47, and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, to make a series of mistakes that doomed the flight from Newark, New Jersey.
A spokeswoman for Houston-based Continental, Julie King, declined to comment on the settlements. Joe Williams, a spokesman for Pinnacle, based in Memphis, Tennessee, said in an e-mail that the company is “pleased that these cases have been amicably resolved.”
The families of Tolsma and Roberts also sued Bombardier Inc., maker of the Dash 8 Q400 plane. John Arnone, a spokesman for Montreal-based Bombardier, declined to comment.
Mediator Richard F. Griffin filed court papers on June 10 notifying U.S. District Judge William Skretny of the Roberts settlement. Skretny, who is overseeing the litigation, signed an order on Aug. 19 sealing the terms, saying “confidentiality is a fundamental component of the accord” and “financial terms of the settlement are of no value to the public.”
“Disclosure of the settlement agreement would not advance public understanding of the crash of Flight 3407 nor serve any other public interest sufficient to outweigh the parties’ interests in confidentiality,” according to the order.
Failure to seal the terms “would likely hinder” other accords, undermining the “long-recognized policy of favoring negotiated settlements,” the judge wrote.
The mediator filed papers on Aug. 18 and 19 notifying the judge of the Tolsma agreement.
In 2006, a crash involving Comair Inc., the Delta Air Lines regional carrier, killed 49 in Kentucky. The family of one of the passengers killed, Bryan Keith Woodward, won a $7.1 million verdict. Forty-five others settled for a total of $264 million, an average of $5.87 million each, government records show.
After the Colgan crash, the National Transportation Safety Board held hearings that spotlighted the actions of Renslow, who hid two failed flight tests, and Shaw, who made $16,000 in 2008 and got a raise 11 days before the crash to $23,400.
On Feb. 2, the NTSB concluded its investigation by blaming Renslow for the crash, citing his incorrect response to a cockpit stall warning. He pulled back on the control column after the warning, sending the plane’s nose up, putting the aircraft into a stall that led to the crash, the board found.
Airspeed, Pilots’ Talk
The crew’s failure to monitor airspeed, which slowed enough to trigger the stall warning, contributed to the accident, the NTSB found. Unnecessary conversations between the pilots, and Renslow’s failure to manage the flight, also were contributing factors, the board found.
Colgan’s lack of standard procedures to help pilots select and manage airspeed for airport approaches in icing conditions contributed, the NTSB found. The board said that fatigue “likely impaired” the pilots, and Colgan didn’t “proactively address” fatigue for pilots who commute from other cities to their home airports, as Renslow and Shaw did.
In court filings, Continental and Colgan denied liability. Continental said Colgan owned and operated the plane. In NTSB filings, Colgan said the pilots were at fault.
Before the settlement, Robin Tolsma repeatedly criticized Colgan in speaking to reporters and Congress.
Sending a Message
“It is my goal that Colgan gets put out of business from everybody’s lawsuits,” she said in a Bloomberg News interview. “That would send a message to all regional airlines that you’d better step up to the plate and put human lives ahead of the almighty dollar.”
She did not return a call seeking comment on the settlement. John Roberts Jr., whose son died in the crash, declined to comment. His attorney, Allan Lewis of Lewis & Lewis in Buffalo, said John G. Roberts III lived in India for five years, grew up near Niagra Falls, New York, and did not have a wife or children.
Kreindler, whose firm represents 17 families, said others will settle, with most waiting for higher offers.
“The offers have been too low,” he said. “But it’s real money.”