An ongoing federal court trial over the midair collision that killed 10 people three years ago is a meaner and leaner affair after the federal government's startling settlement Tuesday with the families of SkyWest pilots.
When trial reconvened Wednesday morning, half the attorneys and families were absent from their customary place in court. The families of SkyWest pilots Michael D. Gambil and Walter F. Ray settled their quarrel with the government Tuesday and went home.Court order forbids disclosure of the size and terms of the settlement until after the conclusion of the trial against the federal government.
Families of the four pilots killed in the collision sued the federal government, alleging negligent air traffic control on the day of the collision. They argue that controllers at the Salt Lake International Airport were more interested in landing planes as quickly as possible than they were in safety on the day of the collision.
The settlement offer caught the two families by surprise. "We were led to believe there would be no settlement," said Paul Welchans, attorney for the Ray family.
He believes the government decided to settle with the SkyWest families after the "extremely damaging admissions" by air traffic controller Mike Dawson, the controller in charge of the SkyWest plane at the time of the collision.
The SkyWest families submitted settlement proposals to the federal government in April, but offers were ignored, Welchans said. Then, Dawson testified.
Welchans believes Dawson said two things that knocked the legs out from under the government's defense. "He repeatedly admitted his only focus was expediting traffic to the exclusion of all else. That's just not acceptable in a prudent controller. You have to consider safety first. Even the feds couldn't contest that."
Dawson acknowledged under questioning from the families' attorneys that he was very anxious to move air traffic along the day of the collision. Federal air traffic regulations make safety the top priority.
When asked, Dawson also acknowledged that he considered the airplanes flying in and out of Airport 2 to be "a nuisance."
"I think that statement pretty much explains how this type of accident can occur," Welchans said. "When aircraft are viewed as a nuisance, it is likely they will be ignored."
The government's attorney, Department of Justice lawyer Richard Nevitte, declined to comment on the settlement, referring all questions to his department's public affairs office in Washington, D.C.
But Welchans believed the federal government settled with the SkyWest families the day before it was scheduled to present its defense so it could focus its defense on the Mooney aircraft.
"By everyone's admission, the SkyWest pilots did everything the air traffic controller told them to do," Welchans said. But the federal government alleges the Mooney flew into restricted air space without notifying Salt Lake International as it was required to do.
The families of the four pilots killed in the two planes filed separate suits against the federal government. The four cases were consolidated for trial, but each suit would have been weighed by U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene individually, Welchans said.
Tuesday's settlement leaves the two Utah families to wage their court battle against the government alone. The families of the SkyWest pilots reside in Idaho and Montana.