A federal judge has ruled that the estates of the victims of the crash of Comair Flight 5191 are entitled to seek punitive damages in a trial set for August 4th. In an order made public last month, U.S. District Judge Karl Forester ruled there is enough evidence to allow a jury to decide if the airline’s management was responsible for the August 2006 crash at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport that killed 49 people. Since punitive damages are awarded to punish a wrongdoer, this ruling seems to be legally correct based on the known facts of the case.
Comair has admitted its pilots made mistakes in taking off from the wrong runway, but says the company should not be subject to punitive damages because it did not “authorize or ratify” their conduct. But Judge Forester ruled that the plaintiffs produced sufficient evidence that Comair’s training and policies were negligent, including its failure to require pilots to look at their instruments to verify runway headings. The National Transportation Safety Board has ruled pilot error was the principal cause of the crash. As you may recall, the crash occurred seconds after the Comair jet tried to take off from the wrong runway. Also, that runway was unlit and too short for jetliners. In a pleading filed in the case, Comair has “accepted responsibility for mistakes made by its crew,” and says the pilots failed to maintain “situational awareness.” But it also claims that the airline had no reason to anticipate that Capt. Jeffrey Clay and First Officer James Polehinke “would fail to perform their duties.”
The plaintiffs contended there was “overwhelming” evidence Comair was grossly negligent in its corporate oversight of its safety program and that the reckless operation of the aircraft was a “foreseeable consequence” of decisions by Comair management. The plaintiffs also asserted that “a pilot is in the same position as a corporate officer who is in control of corporate activities.” In allowing punitive damages to be decided by a jury, Judge Forester noted the plaintiffs had presented evidence that Comair knew that one of its flight crews had previously taken off from a wrong runway; that it failed to adopt a written checklist to require cross-checking the runway heading; and that it had no policy prohibiting pilots from taking off on an unlit runway at night. The judge concluded by writing in his order:
It is the opinion of this court that these and other additional circumstances with the expert testimony in support are sufficient to raise a jury question as to whether Comair should have anticipated the conduct of its pilots.
Approximately one-third of the lawsuits arising out of this crash have been settled, but the rest are still pending. The trial, set for August 4th, is expected to go as scheduled.
Source: Louisville Courier Journal
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