First lawsuit filed in DIA crash

By John C. Ensslin, Rocky Mountain News

Published January 12, 2009 at 7:07 p.m. Updated January 13, 2009 at 6:51 a.m.

…Two Texas women filed what appears to be the first lawsuit in connection with the crash of a Continental Airlines jetliner at Denver International Airport.

Melissa Craft and Emily Pellegrini alleged in their suit that the pilot “negligently aborted” the flight shortly after it took off on Dec. 20.

The plane veered off the runway and into a ravine, where it caught fire after fuel from a ruptured right wing tank leaked and ignited.

There were 110 passengers and a five-member crew on board Flight 1404 to Houston. No one was killed, but 38 people were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the accident.

Craft, 25, was on her way home with friends from her first ever ski trip to Colorado. She suffered a back injury and emotional trauma in the crash, according to the lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas.

Pellegrini, 21, was returning home for the holidays from Colorado, where she is a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Pellegrini was stuck when she couldn’t open her seatbelt as the plane caught fire, according to the lawsuit. Later she slipped and fell on leaking jet fuel and oil that soaked her clothing, the lawsuit said.

The eight-page complaint named Continental and pilots David Butler and Chad Levang as co-defendants. The suit does not specify how the aborted takeoff was negligent.

A spokeswoman for Continental called the allegations in the lawsuit “premature.”

“Continental is continuing to focus on providing assistance to the passengers and crew of Flight 1404,” spokeswoman Julie King said in a written statement.

“We are also continuing to participate in the NTSB investigation, and this process is likely to continue for months,” King added. “Since the facts of the accident are still being investigated, the allegations are premature. We’re prepared to defend the company’s actions and those of our crew.”

Jason A. Gibson, lawyer for the two women, alleged that airline officials have been trying to hint that wind shear might be responsible for the crash when pilot error was the more likely cause.

“Continental knows what happened. They have access to all the records. They have access to the pilots,” Gibson said.

“Continental’s already putting a spin on things. … I want to protect (his clients’) rights now,” he added.

NTSB officials could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit. In a preliminary report, investigators have said the flight crew’s first sign of trouble was when the plane veered to the left of the runway.

Witnesses reported “bumping and rattling sounds” might have preceded that. But investigators have matched noises on the cockpit voice recorder with the information on the flight data recorder to determine that the noises came after the plane went off the runway.

The NTSB also found that the flight crew called for the aborted takeoff seven seconds after the plane had begun to slide across the snow.

In addition to the negligence claim, Gibson contends the airline is “putting passengers through hoops,” as they try to get reimbursement for personal property destroyed in the crash.

For example, he said the airline required that a “personal shopper” accompany the women as they try to buy replacement items. He also said the airline has set a $3,000 limit on reimbursement and has required receipts.

King declined to comment on those allegations…

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