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Internal report will be used in air crash suit that killed Voices co-founder

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published 12:28 pm, Wednesday, September 4, 2013
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Lawyers for families suing over the deadly 2009 crash of a plane into a house near Buffalo have won access to an internal safety report that the flight's operators had fought to keep private. Stamford resident and 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert died in the crash. Eckert co-founded New Canaan-based Voices of September 11th with Mary Fetchet.

The families of the crash victims will also be able to interview a retired Federal Aviation Administration inspector who, before the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, was critical of Colgan Air Inc., the now-defunct regional carrier that operated the Newark, N.J.-to-Buffalo flight for Continental Airlines.

A federal judge issued the decisions last week in advance of a March 2014 trial in the case of wrongful death claims filed by passengers' families against Continental, Colgan, its parent, Pinnacle Airlines Corp. and the plane's maker, Bombardier Inc.

Colgan and Pinnacle had argued against both disclosures.

"The significance, I don't think can be overstated," Hugh Russ III, a lawyer representing several families, said Tuesday.

The commuter flight stalled and crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Feb. 12, 2009, in an accident investigators blamed on pilot error. All 49 people on board and a man in the house died. Eckert's death in the crash was doubly tragic, in that she had been a key leader in helping lead 9/11 victims' families lobby for the creation of the 9/11 Commission, national security policy reform, and for creation of a memorial at the World Trade Center site. She was also active in local Stamford memorial projects, and involved in Glenbrook community affairs.

In similar lobbying efforts, the families of the 2009 plane crash have pressed the flight's operators to release safety records.

Less than a month after the crash, Colgan Air commissioned the firm of Nick Sabatini & Associates for an internal safety review during which Sabatini interviewed mechanics, pilots and other employees and observed training classes and flights.

Colgan executives said the findings were privileged and intended for internal use only -- and withheld them from the National Transportation Safety Board during its investigation of the crash. Lawyers also argued the report was irrelevant to the lawsuits because Sabatini's firm wasn't hired to investigate the crash, only to examine Colgan's post-crash operations.

In ruling for disclosure, U.S. District Judge William Skretny said the report was potentially relevant because it was unlikely that the culture at Colgan had significantly changed in the weeks after the crash.

The deposition of FAA inspector and former pilot Christopher Monteleon similarly is expected to shed light on the safety culture at Colgan. Monteleon, who was assigned to the carrier, said he reported problems with Colgan's flight-testing program for its Bombardier Dash 8-Q400s, the type of plane involved in the crash, in January 2008, a year before the fatal accident.

"Christopher Monteleon was a whistleblower ... who after the crash came out and said, `I warned you something like this would happen,'" Russ said. "So we wanted to take his testimony to see what he knew and what he warned about."

Attorneys for Colgan and Pinnacle had sought a protective order to prevent the testimony, arguing it was unnecessary because the plaintiffs' lawyers already have spoken with more than two dozen Colgan and Pinnacle representatives and received more than 410,000 pages of documents.

Skretny, however, agreed with attorneys for the passengers' families, who said Monteleon may have information that is either new or fills gaps in other witnesses' testimony.

An attorney for the airlines was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

More than 40 lawsuits were filed in federal court following the crash. All but eight have been settled through mediation. Unresolved cases are scheduled for trial beginning March 4. An additional six cases are pending in state court.

The cases were largely stalled for 13 months by a bankruptcy filing by Pinnacle, which emerged from Chapter 11 on May 1 as a unit of Delta Air Lines. Colgan Air stopped flying in 2012.