Seven weeks into the Flight 3407 trial, Karen Wielinski and her daughters on Thursday settled their lawsuits against the airlines with a sense of relief and satisfied that they held the companies responsible for the crash that killed family patriarch Douglas Wielinski and all 49 people aboard the plane.
“It was not easy to get to this point,” Karen Wielinski said.
Her husband died when Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into their Clarence Center home five years ago. “We felt that for all the 3407 families ... we had to let the airlines know what happens” when they are negligent, she said.
After weeks of sometimes chilling and heartbreaking testimony, the family felt the time had come to settle.
“I think we all came to the point where this was enough, and we were happy with the settlement,” Wielinski said.
The confidential agreement halted the trial before the case went to the jury.
While the amount the family will receive was not revealed, one of the family’s lawyers called the settlement “unprecedented in Western New York.”
The Wielinskis sued Colgan Air, which owned and operated the twin-engine turboprop; Pinnacle Airlines, Colgan’s parent; and Continental Airlines, which contracted with Colgan.
State Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall, who presided at the trial, said the settlement “doesn’t conclude the suffering of the family.”
“This is a tragedy that, despite the end of the trial, will not be forgotten,” Marshall said as he thanked jurors for their service.
The judge also expressed his condolences to the Wielinski family in the courtroom.
The Wielinskis sought compensatory damages for Douglas Wielinski’s wrongful death, pain and suffering and for the family’s injuries, pain and suffering.
The plane crashed into the Wielinskis’ Long Street home in Clarence Center about 10:15 p.m. Feb. 12, 2009, as it approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport on a flight from Newark, N.J.
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, lived at home but was with her boyfriend at the time of the crash. Two other daughters – Lori Tiede and Jessica Krill – did not live in Western New York.
The Wielinskis’ lawsuits were the only ones among the more than 40 suits filed after the crash to go to trial. The other suits ended in confidential settlements before trial.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board identified pilot error as the cause of the crash, and the airlines were found to be liable. As a result, the only question for the jury was the amount of damages for the Wielinskis.
The family contended that Douglas Wielinski, 61, did not die immediately but suffered an excruciating death in the fiery aftermath. The airlines maintained that he died instantly from multiple blunt force trauma.
Karen Wielinski described the road from the crash to the trial’s opening statements in September as an “unbelievable journey.”
Anne B. Rimmler, one of the family’s attorneys, called the legal action noteworthy because it held Continental responsible for Flight 3407, along with Colgan Air and Pinnacle.
She said that was an important factor in getting a settlement for the Wielinskis. She said it also led to Continental rewriting its contracts with regional carriers so that Continental can be held responsible for pilot safety training.
Before the trial, Colgan had asked the judge to remove it from the lawsuit, contending it bore no legal responsibility for the crash. The judge denied the motion.
Continental argued that Colgan was an independent contractor and that Continental was not responsible for Colgan’s actions. It also contended that Colgan had absolute control over the aircraft and crew and that Colgan was responsible for all pilot hiring, training, aircraft maintenance and in-flight operation.
While the judge found that Colgan was an independent contractor, he noted some exceptions to the general rule that a party who retains an independent contractor is not liable for the contractor’s negligent acts.
One exception involves the employer’s negligence in selecting, instructing or supervising the contractor.
The judge cited an expert affidavit for the Wielinskis from Gregory A. Feith, a former field investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board, who said that in selecting Colgan to operate flights, Continental failed to ensure that its standard of care for training flight crews and conducting flights was met.
Feith said Colgan pilots never received training on how to respond to the activation of the stall warning on a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft like the one that crashed when the pilot failed to respond correctly. That incorrect response was blamed for the crash.
Philipp Rimmler, an attorney who also represented the Wielinskis and is married to Anne Rimmler, said the crash should not have happened.
Because of pilot error, he said, Douglas Wielinski and others died, a house was destroyed and the Wielinskis lost everything.
“Having to rebuild their lives is almost unimaginable,” he said.
Karen Wielinski and Hohl both testified about their harrowing escapes from the house after the crash and the effects of the disaster on their lives.
Outside the courtroom, 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 an extensive sports memorabilia collection that an expert appraised at $2.4 million. The collection was destroyed or heavily damaged in the crash.
She mentioned her grandchildren as she noted that she and her family still have reasons to be happy, but she said any happiness is bittersweet, since her husband of 30 years is no longer with them.
Karen Wielinski thanked the community for supporting her family for more than five years during trying times. She cited the first responders, firefighters, local officials and neighbors for their efforts.
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.
She expressed condolences for those families and noted that 51 souls were lost that night, including a 7-month-old fetus who was killed along with the mother on the plane.
The airlines’ attorneys thanked the judge and jurors and addressed the Wielinskis in court.
David J. Harrington, attorney for Colgan and Pinnacle, wished the family well. Continental attorney Oliver Beiersdorf expressed his client’s condolences for the family’s loss.