Families suing over the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 won an important legal battle this week -- the right to review the training and safety policies of Continental Airlines and its regional carriers.
U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny ordered Continental to provide documents that the families think will prove that inadequate pilot training and subpar safety standards contributed to the crash that killed 50 people.
Lawyers for the families said the ruling also will help determine whether the policies at Colgan Air, owner of the plane that crashed Feb. 12, 2009, in Clarence Center, were less stringent than those of its partner, Continental.
"We suspect the safety of regional carriers is less than national carriers," said Hugh M. Russ III, a lawyer for several of the families. "The documentation we will receive under this order should shed some light on that issue."
The lawsuits against Continental and Colgan are based, in part, on the contention that Colgan did not adopt adequate safety programs and that it failed to sufficiently train its flight crews.
"Financial concern was placed ahead of passenger safety," said Daniel O. Rose, a lawyer for one of the families, "and they were both part and parcel of that culture."
The suits also suggest that Continental retained significant oversight of Colgan, especially regarding safety standards, flight operations and crew training.
The families contend that Continental not only knew of what they called Colgan's lower safety and training standards, but approved of them.
Federal investigators blamed the crash on pilot error.
"The allegation is that Continental was controlling some of what Colgan did," said Anthony J. Colucci III, a lawyer for some of the families.
The plane that crashed in Clarence Center was owned by Colgan but flew under the "Continental Connection" banner.
A lawyer for Continental declined to comment Tuesday, but the airline, in court papers, argued that the families' request for more information was "plainly irrelevant" and was made simply to "satisfy a curiosity."
The airline also suggested that the request for additional documentation was overly burdensome and would add years to the discovery process in the lawsuits.
Skretny described Continental's position as "unpersuasive."
"What Continental was trying to do was keep us from getting to the evidence," Rose said. "And what Judge Skretny said was, 'You can't do that.' "
Training, safety and flight operations, and the differences in how Continental and Colgan approached those issues, have emerged as key elements in the lawsuits over the Flight 3407 crash.
Lawyers for the families say the information obtained as part of Skretny's new ruling will help answer a wide range of questions, including:
Did pilots at Colgan receive less training than pilots at Continental?
Were they paid less?
Were Colgan's flights less safe as a result?
"How can you tell that without comparing them?" Colucci said Tuesday.
The lawsuits contend that Continental used its regional carrier system to lower expenses and increase revenue, and was well aware of its partner's lower safety standards.
They also argue that Continental's control over Colgan is important because it goes to the national airline's liability in terms of negligence and damages.
"Continental," said Russ, "has been trying to distance itself from Colgan."
Many of the lawsuits filed by families of the victims of Flight 3407 have been settled out of court, but an even larger number remain active.
If there is a trial on the issue of wrongful death, jury selection would begin in March. It is expected that such a trial would be lengthy, with the focus on allegations of pilot fatigue and inadequate pilot training.
If a jury would find fault with the airlines or the plane's manufacturer, Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., the other defendant, it also would decide the damages to be paid to each of the survivors.