The crash on a clear August day in 2009 horrified New Yorkers and visitors alike. A sightseeing helicopter carrying five Italian tourists collided in mid-air over the Hudson River with a private Piper airplane carrying three members of a Pennsylvania family. There were no survivors.
Last year, the federal government quietly paid $18.675 million to Jaclyn Altman, whose husband and son were passengers on the airplane, to settle charges of negligence by air-traffic controllers.
The payment, which has not previously been reported, was the largest settlement in 2012 by the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s revealed in the Judgment Fund, which is administered by the Treasury Department and is used by the government to pay for court judgments and lawsuit settlements. Last year, the FAA authorized 23 payments from the fund — totaling $45 million — to settle suits brought in the wake of airplane crashes.
In the Hudson River crash, the families of the dead sued and countersued each other, blaming the pilots for the crash, as well as the helicopter owner and manufacturer. They also sued the FAA, alleging that the air-traffic controller was making a personal phone call when the crash occurred, and that his supervisor had left the tower to run an errand.
The United States in court papers was initially defiant. "The sole proximate and legal cause of this accident was the intentional, willful, wanton, reckless, careless, grossly negligent, or negligent conduct of persons other than agents, employees, or servants of Defendant United States," a Justice Department lawyer said.
But Altman’s lawyers from Baumeister & Samuels argued that the air-traffic controller’s "inappropriate and grossly improper personal telephone conversation was a flagrant violation of his duties and responsibilities as an on-duty air traffic controller."The case settled in fall 2011, with payment made in March 2012. At the time of the settlement, both the air-traffic controller and supervisor still worked for the FAA, according to Altman’s lawyer, who in a court transcript said his client wanted them fired.
In June 2012, the government settled claims brought by the parents and sister of the helicopter pilot, Jeremy Clarke, for $1.5 million.
Clarke’s family was represented by Justin Green of Kreindler & Kreindler in New York, who said the settlement was less than Altman’s because Clark was single and had no dependents, and also had another private settlement that acted as an offset.
Although the government in court papers argued that its liability was reduced due to Clarke’s contributory negligence, Green said the settlement "did not factor in this defense. The evidence showed that Jeremy was blameless in this tragic accident."
Last month, according to Judgment Fund records, the government also settled claims with the Italian tourists for $14.25 million, though that number is not reflected in 2012 payments.
The FAA paid for its role in other plane crashes as well, shelling out about $8.25 million to the families of Richard and Shane Schippers, a father and son who were passengers on a private plane that crashed in Texas in 2009. The families alleged that the FAA was negligent because air-traffic controllers failed to give the pilot accurate information about severe thunderstorms.
The government settled another weather-related accident for $2,450,000. In that case, Maryland State Trooper Mickey Lippy was on board a medical helicopter transporting two car crash victims when it crashed on September 27, 2008, killing four of the five aboard. The plaintiffs alleged that the air-traffic controllers gave old and inaccurate weather information and failed to guide the helicopter to a safe landing.
Contact Jenna Greene at email@example.com.