The only lawsuit to go to trial in the fatal crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 was settled this morning in State Supreme Court.
The family of Douglas Wielinski, who died when the turboprop twin-engine plane crashed into his Clarence Center home the night of Feb. 12, 2009, reached the settlement, Justice Frederick J. Marshall announced at about 11:30 a.m.
“This is a tragedy that, despite the end of the trial, will not be forgotten,” Marshall told the jury after informing them of the settlement and thanking them for their efforts during the seven-week-long trial.
The settlement “doesn’t conclude the suffering of the family,” he said, expressing his condolences to the Wielinski family who were in the courtroom.
Karen Wielinski and her daughters sued the airlines for the wrongful death of her 61-year-old husband, his pain and suffering and for the family’s injuries, pain and suffering.
Since the settlement was confidential, the amount of money the family will receive was not announced.
Speaking outside the courtroom, Karen Wielinski said the family felt it was time to settle the lawsuit. “I think we all came to the point where this was enough, and we were happy with the settlement,” she said.
Philipp Rimmler, one of the family’s attorneys, called the settlement “unprecedented in Western New York” but could not reveal the amount under the settlement agreement.
Anne B. Rimmler, his wife and fellow attorney who also represented the family, said the legal action held Continental Airlines, which had contracted with Colgan Air, the owner and operator of the plane, responsible for Flight 3407.
She said that was an important factor in getting a settlement for the Wielinski family. She said it also led to Continental rewriting its contract with regional carriers so that Continental can be held responsible for pilot safety training.
Karen Wielinski thanked the Rimmlers and the other attorneys from the Paul William Beltz law firm, including Brian Hogan and Timothy Hudson, for helping “shed light on this terrible tragedy and its devastating consequences.”
“Our legal team never wavered,” she said, while also thanking trial witnesses and jurors. “Doug would be very proud of how we have resolved to bring justice to him.”
She said he was a good husband, father, friend and member of the community who had many interests including collecting sports memorabilia.
She thanked the community for supporting her family for more than five years during trying times. She cited the first responders, firefighters and local officials who were at the crash scene.
She also recognized the efforts of the Flight 3407 families in lobbying for legislation in Washington to ensure proper training for pilots. “We will be keeping an eye on Washington to make sure that what we fought for will be implemented,” she said.
Karen Wielinski, 63, and her youngest daughter, Jill Hohl, 27, were at home the night of the crash but were able to escape. Karen Wielinski suffered a broken collarbone, and Hohl escaped with minor injuries.
Another daughter, Kimberly Lipiarz, who lived at home was at her boyfriend’s at the time of the crash. Two other daughters – Lori Tiede and Jessica Krill – did not live at home.
The Wielinskis’ lawsuits were the first of the more than 40 suits filed by the families of the 49 other crash victims who were on the plane to go to trial. The other suits also ended in confidential settlements.
The Wielinski family sued Colgan Air; its parent, Pinnacle Airlines; and Continental.
The crash was blamed on pilot error, and the airlines were found to be liable for the crash. As a result, the only question for the jury to determine was the amount of damages to be awarded to the family.
The family contended that Douglas Wielinski survived the crash but experienced an excruciating death in the fiery aftermath. The airlines contended that he died instantly from multiple blunt force trauma.
The settlement came during the seventh week of the trial as the family’s attorneys neared the end of their case and the airlines attorneys prepared to present their case.
Karen Wielinski and Hohl both testified about their harrowing escapes from the house after the crash and the effects of the crash on their lives.
In her opening statement to the jury Sept. 18, Anne Rimmler described what happened when the plane plunged into the home on Long Street around 10:15 p.m.
Douglas Wielinski was in the family room in the back of his Clarence Center home watching television with his wife..
He got up and went to the dining room to work on some Buffalo Bisons puzzles from the 1930s spread out on a table. Their daughter, Jill Hohl, who was 22 at the time, was upstairs in a bedroom in the front of their home, which was in the flight path for Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
“They were used to hearing planes overhead, but what they heard that night was like nothing they had heard before,” Rimmler told the jury. It was a passenger plane crashing down on their home. “There was no time to escape,” Rimmler said.
The crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 buried the two women in piles of rubble. The women struggled to survive as the home burned.
“Jill was an arm’s length from fire 100 to 150 feet high,” with the floor of her bedroom tilted at a 45-degree angle, Rimmler said.
Realizing she was going to be burned alive unless she found a way out, Hohl felt her way along the floor. “Miraculously, she found an opening and pushed her way out of the rubble,” Rimmler said.
The first thing she saw was the Continental logo on the crashed twin-engine turboprop. She was hysterical, screaming in fear for her life, Rimmler said.
Barefoot and dressed in pajamas on a freezing night, Hohl climbed down the plane wreckage to the ground. She saw her home destroyed and on fire.
“She screamed for her parents, but nobody responded,” Rimmler said.
She then saw her mother emerge from the back of the house, screaming.
Rimmler said Karen Wielinski also had to push her way out of the rubble that landed on her when the family room’s cathedral ceiling collapsed as she sat in a love seat watching television.
“She knew that if she didn’t get out, she was going to die,” the attorney said.
A broken collarbone made it difficult for Karen Wielinski to push away the debris, Rimmler said, but she kept trying. She eventually saw light and got out of the house.
“It was hard to accept,” Rimmler said. “She wanted to look for Doug, but she knew he probably was trapped in the house.”
Her daughter also wanted to go back into the house and look for him, but Karen Wielinski stopped her. “She knew there was more jet fuel to burn, and she wasn’t going to risk her daughter’s life” in the fire and explosions, Rimmler said.
The two women ran screaming in their bare feet through the backyards along Long Street until they reached Clarence Center Road.
“They turned around and came down the street, screaming for Doug,” Rimmler said.
Hohl was hysterical because she couldn’t go back in the house to get her father, she said.
Rimmler described the effect of the crash on Karen Wielinski and her daughter.
“Life after the accident was not the same as before,” she said. “They will never have the happy, fulfilled family life they once had. They will never be able to erase the images of that night. They suffer every day.”
She said their suffering includes fear of being trapped, being alone and hearing loud noises. She said the fears sometimes cause them to throw up or pull over to the side of the road while driving.
“One of Jill’s biggest fears is that she will never be able to be happy again,” the attorney said.
She added that the two survivors take medication to get through their panic attacks.
Part of the family’s claim was for the value of Douglas Wielinski’s sports memorabilia collection, which an expert testified Wednesday was worth up to $2.4 million when he was killed. It included 10 Mickey Mantle rookie cards.