International and Domestic Airline Disasters
American Airlines Flight 587
On November 12, 2001, an Airbus A300 aircraft headed to the Dominican Republic was climbing out of New York’s JFK Airport when the vertical stabilizer broke off in mid-air causing the plane to break apart as it fell from the sky killing all 260 passengers and flight crew on board. Parts of the aircraft fell in a residential neighborhood in Belle Harbor, NY and 5 people were killed by falling debris. The litigation proceeded against both the aircraft manufacturer for design failures, and the airline for actions taken by the flight crew. Due to his extensive background and experience in complex multi-party aviation disaster litigation, Mitch Baumeister was named Co-Lead Counsel of the Plaintiffs’ Committee by the Honorable Judge Robert Sweet. He and members of the firm were charged with the responsibility to work on behalf of all of the cases filed as a result of the disaster and prove that American Airlines and Airbus were liable to pay damages to the passengers and ground victims.
Our lawyers reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents produced by the defendants and conducted dozens of depositions in the United States and overseas. We complemented the investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board with the retention of dozens of experts from a variety of disciplines, including those with extensive backgrounds in cockpit resource management and training, and engineering specialists familiar with the design and manufacture of the aircraft. Due to the unusual circumstance of the vertical stabilizer breaking off of the aircraft during climb, the case was vigorously defended by each of the defendants who asserted cross claims against each other which complicated the case even further. Mr. Baumeister was selcted by the Court to conduct all of the initial settlement negotiations with the defendants on behalf of select plaintiffs, who were represented by other attorneys from the Plaintiffs Steering Committee. After several years of discovery and motions, the case was readied for trial, at which time the defendants negotiated substantial settlements with each of the firm’s clients to avoid a public trial.
Egypt Air Flight 990
Approximately 30 minutes after taking off from New York’s JFK Airport on October 31, 1999, Egypt Air Flight 990, a Boeing 767 bound for Cairo, Egypt with 217 people on board, including 100 Americans, entered into a rapid descent and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles southwest of Nantucket Island. Within two weeks, the National Transportation Safety Board began well-publicized discussions with representatives of the Egyptian government over the probability that the crash had been intentionally caused by a member of the flight crew. The cockpit voice recorder installed inside the cockpit of the plane revealed that a few minutes after reaching its assigned cruising altitude, the relief crew first officer entered the flight deck and informed the command first officer that he was being relieved, three hours earlier than his anticipated time would have been to begin his relief first officer duties. Shortly after this flight crew exchange, the command pilot is heard stating he was going to step out of the cockpit to use the restroom. What follows on the cockpit voice recorder includes a series of clicks indicating changes into the aircraft’s flight control coordinates which resulted in a drastic change to the aircraft’s altitude and pitch, as well as repeated statements by the relief first officer which translated into “I rely on God”. The command pilot is heard banging on the cockpit door asking as to what is going on inside the cockpit. He eventually reenters the cockpit after the relief first officer has shut down the aircraft engines and attempts to regain control of the doomed aircraft as it falls to the ocean.
The firm was retained to represent the families of several of the passengers killed on board the flight. During the discovery phase of the litigation, lawyers from Baumeister & Samuels took the depositions of dozens of Egypt Air employees, as well depositions of employees of the New York City hotel where the air carrier’s flight crews rested between flights. During these depositions, they obtained testimony as to the mental instability and precarious life of the relief first officer. Following this testimony, substantial amounts of money were paid to the firm’s clients as compensation for the deaths of their loved ones.
Swissair Flight 111, Halifax
An MD-11 aircraft operating as Swissair Flight 111 was approximately one hour into flight from JFK Airport in New York to Geneva, Switzerland on September 2, 1998 when the crew reported the presence of smoke in the cockpit. For almost thirty minutes, the flight crew reviewed the airplanes flight manuals trying to troubleshoot the source of the smoke instead of executing an immediate emergency landing. The smoke condition soon evolved into fire in the cockpit causing the flight crew to lose control of the plane and the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia killing all 229 people on board. The Canadian Transportation Board took the lead in the investigation into the cause of the crash and ultimately determined that the fire may have been started by the ignition of the aircraft’s insulation.
Baumeister & Samuels represented the families of both US and European citizens in litigation that was ultimately consolidated and transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to be overseen by the Chief Judge. One of the firm’s clients, Jake LaMotta, renowned boxing champion, retained the firm shortly after the crash occurred and instructed us to take whatever actions were necessary to uncover the reason why his only son, Joe, was killed while traveling to Geneva on family business. Lawyers from the firm assumed leading roles in prosecuting the case armed with knowledge and prior litigation experience with the wiring contained in MD-11 aircraft. It was well known within the aviation industry that the wiring had a history of short circuits, arcing, fire and smoke in cockpits. In 1996 and 1997, the Federal Aviation Administration issued directives warning that wiring problems could cause catastrophic fires such as what occurred on Swissair Flight 111. The firm’s reputation and expertise enabled it to negotiate substantial settlements for all of its clients.
TWA Flight 800
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York headed for a stop over in Paris, France before arriving at its ultimate destination in Rome, Italy. On board were 230 crew members and passengers, including students who belonged to the French Club at a high school in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Although the 747 was originally scheduled to depart at 7:00 PM, a mismatch involving a piece of luggage loaded on board which was unassociated to any passenger delayed its departure for more than an hour. The last radio transmission from the aircraft occurred at 8:30 PM when the flight crew received and acknowledged instructions from New York Center to climb to 15,000 feet. Less than two minutes later, the captain of another aircraft in the area reported to air traffic control that he had seen an explosion ahead of his position at approximately 16,000 and that he witnessed flaming debris enter the Moriches Inlet off the coast of Long Island. The National Transportation Safety Board received notice that the flight had fallen off radar minutes later and began what became its most extensive, complex and expensive air disaster investigation to date.
Within hours of reports that a commercial aircraft was missing, rampant speculation that either a bomb or missile was responsible consumed international media outlets. The FBI quickly joined NTSB investigators at the area closest to the crash site in East Moriches, New York and began its own investigation based upon the assumption that a crime had taken place. Wreckage was strewn across miles of the Atlantic Ocean and much of it fell to the ocean floor. A decision was made to recover all of the wreckage and reconstruct the 747 in a hanger facility on Long Island to rule out theories and determine the cause of its destruction.
The “black boxes” - the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, were recovered and revealed that approximately two and a half minutes before the flight broke up mid-flight the captain commented that they were receiving “crazy” readings from the #4 engine fuel flow gauge. Seconds before the recording ended, the cockpit voice recorder indicated two dropouts of background power harmonics which the NTSB concluded could be the signature of an electrical arc on cockpit wiring adjacent to the fuel quantity indicator switch wiring. In addition, the center wing tank fuel quantity gauge was recovered from the ocean floor and indicated the presence of 640 pounds of fuel instead of the 300 pounds that had been loaded into the tank. NTSB experiments showed that applying power to a wire leading to the fuel quantity gauge can cause the digital display to change by several hundred pounds before the circuit breaker trips drawing them to conclude that the gauge anomaly could have been caused by a short to the fuel quantity indicator switch wiring.
After several years of painstaking recovery and recreation, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture contained within the tank. While the precise source of the explosion’s fuel energy could not be determined with certainty since not all wires and components were recovered from the ocean floor, the NTSB concluded that the most likely source of sufficient voltage to cause the ignition was a short circuit outside of the center wing tank that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indicator switch. Throughout the course of its investigation, the NTSB issued more than a dozen safety recommendations covering fuel tank and wiring issues.
Not only did the families of those killed on board TWA Flight 800 have endure years of rumors and speculation that a bomb or missile was responsible for their loved ones deaths until the NTSB was able to announce the result of its forensic investigation, they also had to fight in court and through the legislative process for the right to recover fair and just compensation. Although it was quickly determined by various investigative agencies that the 747 crashed 8 miles off the coast of Long Island, the battle over what that meant in terms of the applicable law to be applied to the claims of the families became the subject of dozens of court appearances, motions and appeals. After the majority of wrongful death cases were filed after the disaster, they were consolidated and transferred to the Honorable Robert T. Sweet in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Within months, lawyers representing TWA and Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, sought a court order stating that a federal statute entitled, Death on the High Seas Act, (“DOHSA”)(46 U.S.C. app. §761-767) should be applied to their claims since it was the prevailing law in situations where deaths occurred more than a marine league (3 miles) off shore. At the time, DOHSA was a very restrictive law which, if applied by the court, would have limited both the beneficiaries entitled to recover damages from the defendants from their loved ones deaths, as well as the amount of their recoveries, particularly in situations where children were killed. Lawyers from Baumeister & Samuels worked closely with other counsel representing families to draft opposition to the defendants’ motions by arguing that in 1988 President Ronald Reagan extended the territorial waters of the United States to 12 miles by Executive Proclamation (54 Fed. Reg. 774 1988). In a case of first impression involving the factual context of a commercial air disaster, Judge Sweet denied the defendants’ motion and determined that by using the term “high seas” Congress intended to limit the scope of the application of DOHSA to those waters that were not subject to the laws of any nation. In Re Air Crash Off Long Island, New York, on July 17, 1996, 1998 WL 292333, *11 (S.D.N.Y., June 2, 1998). Two years later, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Sweet’s decision. In Re Air Crash Off Long Island, New York, on July 17, 1996, 209 F.3d 200 (2nd Cir. 2000).
While the case made its way through the legal system, lawyers from our firm worked with the families of those killed to seek a legislative change in the terms of DOHSA which, as written at the time, would have prevented the recovery of monetary damages from the defendants for many of the victims. After a several year struggle, the statute was finally amended and signed into law on April 5, 2000 (46 U.S.C. § 30307) excluding commercial air disasters from its application when a wrongful death occurs on the high seas 12 nautical miles or closer to the shore, and broadening the measure of damages to include those for loss of care, comfort and companionship when a wrongful death does occur on the high seas.
Continental Connection Flight 3407
On February 12, 2009, a Q-400 turboprop aircraft crashed on final approach to runway 23 at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in Buffalo, New York. The flight crew improperly monitored their instrumentation throughout the descent and approach which placed the aircraft in an unsafe flight profile. In addition, the flight crew’s response to the activation of the stick shaker caused the aircraft to enter an aerodynamic stall from which the pilots could not recover. All 45 passengers, 4 crew members and 1 individual on the ground were killed in the crash.
Baumeister & Samuels represented 5 families who lost loved ones in the crash, and its lawyers were appointed to the Plaintiffs’ Committee formed to represent the interests of the families of all of the passengers, and they were named Co-Lead Counsel for the litigation. The firm’s attorneys undertook a significant effort in preparing the pre-trial discovery in the litigation and exposing the errors committed by the flight crew. Instead of focusing on their piloting responsibilities during the descent and approach to the airport, the flight crew of Flight 3407 engaged in non-pertinent conversation in violation of federal aviation regulations. Under the Federal Aviation Regulations, a flight crew may not discuss or engage in any non-piloting communication or activity when the aircraft is in a critical phase of flight below 10,000 feet. This is referred to as the sterile cockpit rule. Sadly, violations of the sterile cockpit rule are a common occurrence in aviation tragedies.
While preparing the aircraft for landing, the pilots improperly made certain pilot inputs that caused the premature activation of the stick shaker. The stick shaker is a device that alerts the flight crew to an impending aerodynamic stall and requires the flight crew to take steps to avoid the stall. This usually requires the flight crew to increase the speed of the aircraft by lowering its nose and increasing power to the engines.
Due to the improper pilot inputs, however, the stick shaker activated at a time when the aircraft was not near an aerodynamic stall. In response to the stick shaker the Captain improperly pulled back on the control yoke which caused the nose of the aircraft to pitch up, dangerously slowing the aircraft and causing it to enter an aerodynamic stall. Pulling back on the control yoke in response to stick shaker activation was contrary to basic piloting practices. The flight crew was unable to recover the aircraft from the aerodynamic stall causing it to crash into a home in Buffalo. Baumeister & Samuels’ extensive experience in commercial air carrier litigation was instrumental in obtaining extremely significant recoveries on behalf of each of our clients.
Comair Flight 5191
On August 27, 2006, Comair Flight 5191, a Canadair Regional Jet Model 100 series aircraft manufactured by Bombardier, crashed after the flight crew attempted to depart from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky. Although cleared for take off on Runway 22, the flight crew attempted to depart from Runway 26 which was unlit and too short for the aircraft to sustain sufficient lift. The aircraft impacted a berm at the end of the runway and crashed into an adjacent field. Forty nine people were killed and only the First Officer who was operating the controls as the aircraft rolled down the dark unlit runway survived.
Baumeister & Samuels took the lead role in the Comair 5191 litigation, and was instrumental in conducting the most significant discovery in the case as part of the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee. Our efforts included taking dozens of depositions of liability and expert witnesses, participating in the preparation of the visual animation video, extensive document review and coordination, and the drafting of all legal briefs in preparation for trial. Given our extensive involvement in the litigation, we were able to obtain significant recoveries on behalf of the families we represented in this tragedy.
Comair Flight 3272
During the Comair Flight 3272 litigation, attorneys from our firm served as leading members of the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee to represent the interests of all the passengers killed in the crash. We were also responsible for conducting a significant portion of the pre-trial discovery for case.
On January 9, 1997, Comair Flight 3272, an Embraer Brasilia (EMB-120) turboprop aircraft crashed on final approach to the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport as the result of an in-flight icing event. All 26 passengers and 3 crew members were killed in the crash. Ice accretion on aircraft, especially turboprop aircraft, has long been known throughout the industry to significantly degrade aircraft performance creating the potential for a catastrophic loss of control. Unlike jet aircraft, turboprop aircraft use pneumatic deice boots to remove ice from the aircraft’s wings and tail. The deice boots inflate to break away ice that has formed on each of these flight control surfaces. Different from the pneumatic boot deice system, jet aircraft use hot air from their engines to create a heated surface to rid the jet of ice. The litigation involving Comair Flight 3272 focused on the issue of ice build-up on the aircraft, the effectiveness of the pneumatic deice boot system, and also examined flight crew’s conduct in response to an in-flight icing event. Our extensive experience in cases involving the in-flight loss of control that can result from ice build-up on aircraft resulted in a very significant recovery of monetary damages for our clients.
ValuJet Flight 592
On May 11, 1996, shortly after 2:00 PM, ValuJet Flight 592 departed Miami International Airport heading for Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia with 105 passengers and 5 crew members. Among the victims were a former San Diego Chargers running back and his wife, and a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs. Within just a few minutes of departure, the cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage revealed that the flight crew heard a loud bang in their headphones and observed that the aircraft was losing electrical power. Within seconds, a flight attended entered the cockpit to inform the flight crew of a fire in the passenger cabin. Passengers can be heard shouting “fire” on the recording. The flight crew immediately requested a return to Miami due to increasing smoke in the cockpit and cabin and they received instructions for a return. One minute later, one of the pilots requested they be given permission to land at the nearest airport. Eyewitnesses nearby reported seeing the plane banked sharply, roll on its side and nosedive at a near vertical angle into the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area in the Everglades, a few miles west of Miami.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-9 disappeared from radar at 2:13PM. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the aircraft entered the swampy Everglades at more than 500 miles per hour. Evidence recovered at the site showed that fire had burned through the floorboards in the cockpit resulting in structural failure and damage to the cables located underneath the instrument panels. The NTSB was eventually able to determine that the fire that brought down Flight 592 began in the cargo compartment below the passenger cabin. The cargo compartment was designed so that fire suppression could be achieved by sealing off the hold from outside air which eliminated the need to equip the cargo hold with smoke detectors. Just before takeoff, expired chemical oxygen generators were placed inside the cargo compartment by employees of SabreTech, a maintenance contractor hired by ValuJet. These generators were inside five boxes identifying them as “company owned material”. The placement of these generators inside the cargo hold was a direct violation of FAA regulations which expressly forbid the transport of hazardous materials in aircraft cargo holds. Moreover, FAA regulations required the placement of plastic caps over the generators’ firing pins to make accidental activation unlikely. The investigation revealed that the SabreTech workers failed to cover the generators’ firing pins and that they noted on the cargo manifest that the containers were “empty” instead of “expired”. The difference is significant in that a byproduct of the chemical reaction of the oxygen containers is that they produce a great quantity of heat, enough to not only start a fire but enough to keep a fire burning particularly in an area without any form of fire suppression. Included in the company owned materials on the cargo manifest were several tires. The NTSB concluded that as a result of slight jolt to the aircraft during taxi, one of the oxygen generators activated, producing oxygen and heat which eventually ignited the cardboard box in which it was packed allowing the fire to start and ultimately spread throughout the aircraft. The Safety Board found SabreTech responsible for improperly packing and storing hazardous material, and also determined that ValuJet’s failure to supervise SabreTech’s employees contributed to the crash. It also strongly recommended that the FAA enact regulations requiring smoke detectors and fire suppression equipment inside cargo holds.
Baumeister & Samuels was retained to represent several of the families of the victims. The lawsuits were consolidated and assigned to be managed by a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida. As discovery proceeded in the civil lawsuits, our lawyers worked with our clients to bring pressure on prosecutors to bring criminal charges against SabreTech and two of its employees who improperly packed and loaded the generators on board the plane. In 1997, a federal grand jury indicted SabreTech and the two employees. Two years later, SabreTech was found guilty of mishandling hazardous materials and improperly training its employees. The company was fined $2 million dollars. One of the workers failed to appear and remains a fugitive today. SabreTech appealed its conviction and while the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its conviction on charges that it mishandled hazardous materials, it upheld the conviction for improper training. Following remand back to the federal court, the company was indicted on 110 counts of manslaughter and third degree murder by state prosecutors. In a plea deal, SabreTech settled the state charges by pleading no contest to a state charge of mishandling hazardous waste and agreed to donate $500,000 to an aviation safety group and a Miami-based charity.
Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 7529
An Embraer 120 turboprop aircraft operating as Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 7529, was climbing through 18,000 after taking off from Atlanta, Georgia on August 21, 1995, when one of its propellers separated from the left engine assembly and became imbedded in the leading edge of the wing. Although the aircraft is designed to be able to fly with a single engine, the distortion of the left engine as a result of the propeller’s impact created excessive drag which resulted in a loss of left on the side of the aircraft forcing it to quickly lost altitude. The flight crew made an emergency landing in a field near Carrollton, Georgia. All of the passengers and crew survived the initial impact, but were seriously injured or killed by the post-crash fire that erupted less than a minute after the plane belly-landed.
During the discovery phase of the litigation, Mitch Baumeister was the lead lawyer responsible for proving the defendants’ liability. Dozens of depositions were taken and it was revealed that the cause of the blade’s separation was due to metal fatigue in the blade from corrosion. It was also determined that the manufacturer of the propeller blade, Hamilton Standard, had knowledge of two previous failures of the same type of propeller. The blade that failed on ASA Flight 7529 had undergone ultrasonic testing shortly before the crash which resulted in it being rejected and removed from the propeller. It was sent to Hamilton Standard’s facility where it was refurbished incorrectly before it was reinstalled on the EMB-120 turboprop aircraft.
Baumeister & Samuels represented a woman on board the flight who survived the crash but suffered severe and life altering burns. As a result of the firm’s work, we were successful in securing for her and her family the largest personal injury settlement in an aviation case.