A jury Thursday began hearing the only case to go to trial over the February 2009 plane crash into a home outside Buffalo that killed 50 people.
Opening statements framed some tough questions jurors will consider to determine how the airlines must compensate the family of Douglas Wielinski: Did he die instantly when the commuter plane crashed into their home? To what extent did the crash traumatize his widow and daughter?
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"No words can describe the horror of the night they lived through. No words can describe the terror they felt," the Wielinskis' attorney, Anne Beltz Rimmler, told jurors in state Supreme Court. "The enormity of their loss is overwhelming."
Karen Wielinski and daughter Jill Hohl are seeking unspecified damages from Continental Airlines, regional carrier Colgan Air and Colgan parent, Pinnacle Airlines, in the Connection Flight 3407 crash that killed all 49 people on board.
Theirs is the only one of dozens of lawsuits filed after the crash to go to trial. Lawsuits filed by the passengers' families were settled for undisclosed sums. The Wielinskis were unable to reach an agreement.
Rimmler described the aftermath of the crash, telling jurors how Karen Wielinski and her daughter "miraculously" freed themselves from their leveled two-story home and made it outside as the plane burned. She said they were forever scarred by the thought of Douglas Wielinski surviving the impact only to die in the ensuing fire.
"Everybody hoped and prayed Doug died instantaneously, but the facts do not support that," the attorney said.
The airlines contend Wielinski did die on impact, saying his body was driven from the home and across the driveway, where it was found two days later under rubble.
"His legs had been traumatically separated from his body," Neil Goldberg, attorney for Colgan and Pinnacle, said. "He had sustained a fractured sternum and at least 10 fractured ribs ... Mr. Wielinski did not draw a single breath following the impact."
Investigators said the commuter flight from Newark, New Jersey, on its way to Buffalo stalled and crashed onto the Wielinski's home in the suburb of Clarence after the pilots responded incorrectly to a stall warning.
"We sincerely feel for them and are so sorry this ever occurred," Goldberg said. "We agreed this accident was caused by the mistakes of our pilots."
But Goldberg cited "sharp differences of opinion," including the value of Douglas Wielinski's extensive sports memorabilia collection, some of which was destroyed, and the extent of the psychological impact on Karen Wielinski and Hohl.
Rimmler characterized the women's suffering as "monumental," while the airline attorneys said the fact that they had returned to work, kept up with family celebrations and maintained friendships indicated the psychological trauma was mild or moderate.
Continental attorney Oliver Beiersdorf also expressed the airline's condolences and asked jurors to follow legal guidelines when determining an award.
"Putting a monetary value on someone's life, as you're being asked to do, is not an easy task," he said.