A federal judge in Utah is asking the Montana Supreme Court to help decide if an air ambulance company can blame air traffic controllers for a deadly crash outside Bozeman in 2007.
Because Metro Aviation Inc. settled with families of a paramedic and nurse who died in the crash, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell says it’s not clear the company’s insurers can turn around and sue the federal government to recover settlement money and insurance losses.
Metro claims air traffic controllers based in Salt Lake City failed to warn the pilot that his plane was descending too fast at Gallatin Field Airport outside of Bozeman.
Federal lawyers want the case thrown out. They say Metro Aviation’s insurers can’t sue because the company already admitted negligence by making settlements.
Campbell asked the Montana Supreme Court to settle the question in an order issued this week.
The crash killed pilot Vince Kirol, 59, paramedic Paul Erickson, 33, and nurse Darcy Dengel, 27.
The crew was under contract with Benefis Healthcare and traveling from Great Falls, Mont., to Bozeman when the Beechcraft 200 King Air clipped a tree and slammed into a mountainside on Feb. 6, 2007.
Metro Aviation settled claims with Erickson’s family out of court, Campbell said. The family blamed Metro Aviation for his wrongful death, and the federal government was not involved, she said.
Dengel’s family sued in a Montana state court, claiming Metro was negligent for relying on one pilot instead of two.
Metro settled the case before trial, Campbell said. The federal government was not involved.
Metro’s insurers that paid the undisclosed settlements now want the federal government to accept some responsibility.
Metro says controllers failed to radio a warning that the pilot was dropping too fast at night. Metro says the pilot could have corrected his approach with a warning.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined pilot error was a “probable” factor in the crash. It listed night conditions and mountainous terrain as contributing factors.
Metro’s insurers argue they didn’t give up the right to sue the federal government by making settlements with the families of the nurse and paramedic.
That’s the question Campbell tossed the Montana Supreme Court.
Metro Aviation is based in Shreveport, La., and contracts life-flight services for St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont., according to the company’s website.