U.S. pays to settle Comair lawsuits

Insurers for Comair paid to settle 45 lawsuits, and taxpayers contributed $58 million, or 22 percent, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show. Aviation settlements not involving the government are typically secret. U.S. safety investigators said pilot errors, compounded by a Federal Aviation Administration lapse, caused the crash.

“That amount is a lot of money for the settlement of 45 passengers, which suggests the government was concerned about its liability exposure,” said Phillip Kolczynski, a Los Angeles aviation attorney who formerly worked for the FAA and the U.S. Justice Department.

Comair Flight 5191, bound for Atlanta from Lexington, crashed just before dawn Aug. 27, 2006, after pilots used an unlit runway that was too short for a safe takeoff, the National Transportation Safety Board found in 2007. The FAA contributed by failing to require that pilots get air-traffic control approval before crossing runways, the board said.

The lone controller working in the Lexington airport’s tower that morning cleared the plane for takeoff and then turned his back to work on administrative duties, according to the report. The plane ran off the end of the runway, tore through a perimeter fence, hit trees, crashed and caught fire.

Comair and Delta’s liability was covered by U.S. Aircraft Insurance Group, according to a Justice Department claim form.

The settlements, averaging $5.9 million per passenger, varied by the age, income, dependents and home state of passengers, according to lawyers representing victims.

Direct comparisons to settlements in other crashes aren’t possible because virtually all are sealed.

In the lone case to go to trial, federal jurors in Lexington on Dec. 7 ordered Comair to pay $7.1 million to the family of passenger Bryan Keith Woodward. A judge ruled Woodward’s family can seek punitive damages next year at trial. Such damages are meant to punish a company for bad conduct and deter others.

“The individual settlements — each of which is unique given the specific circumstances of that particular case — provide fair and reasonable compensation to the families,” Comair spokeswoman Christine Wever said.

The threat of punitive damages increased the settlement amounts, according to Latto.

“The egregiousness of that accident was certainly part of the driving force behind those numbers,” Latto said.

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