The Firm . Victim’s lawyer says Reno Air Races investigation compromised


Victim's lawyer says Reno Air Races investigation compromised

The family of one of the 10 spectators who died in the Sept. 16 crash at the Reno National Championship Air Races is challenging federal investigators' decision to allow race promoters and aviation regulators to take an active part in the investigation of the fatal crash.   "The victims of the disaster are allowed no participation or voice in the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, yet the Reno Air Racing Association and the Federal Aviation Administration are parties to the investigation," said Anthony G. Buzbee, the Houston-based lawyer for the family of Craig Salerno, 50, who died in the crash.   While Buzbee noted that entities involved in crashes are often named participants in the investigations, he wrote in a letter to the NTSB that if the race association and the FAA, who might have been "all or partly at fault for the tragedy" are involved in the investigation, a representative of the victims from the crash at Reno Stead Airport should also be included as a participant in the investigation.   National Transportation Safety Board officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday. Buzbee said the agency has not responded to his concerns.   The Reno Air Racing Association, which has so far paid $25,000 each to injured spectators or families of victims killed in the crash, declined comment about the allegations of conflict of interest.   Meanwhile, the insurance company for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, which owns Reno Stead Airport but is not among the participants in the investigation, has hired a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to help "guide" the authority in the inquiry, airport officials confirmed.   The lobbying firm, O'Neill and Associates, was hired by Chartis Insurance, which holds the policy for the airport and did not disclose how much it is paying the firm.   O'Neill and Associates Website lists Peter Goetz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, as the firm's vice president.   Brian Kulpin, Reno-Tahoe International Airport spokesman, said the firm was hired as a consultant, not a lobbyist, to guide the airport authority through the complexities of the investigation process.   "In no way does lobbying play a role," Kulpin said. "(O'Neill and Associates) has expertise in the process of air crash investigation. They are there to help guide us." Buzbee said the involvement of air race promoters, federal regulators and a lobbyist in the probe is an indication of how politicized the process is at the outset.   "Who will be the lobbyist for the victims?" he asked. "Who will be the lobbyist for the citizens?"   Mike Draper of R&R Advertising and Public Relations, which represents the Reno Air Racing Association, confirmed this week that the association has hired former Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice William Maupin as its lawyer. Maupin is with the law firm of Lionel Sawyer & Collins.   Draper said families of the crash victims were given $25,000 each, but the payments were not an admission of liability. The pilot, Jimmy Leeward, and 10 spectators died when Leeward's P-51 Mustang crashed into the crowd during the Unlimited Class and injured more than 70 people others, more than 60 of them seriously.   If all victims were given $25,000, the race association will have paid out just more than $2 million so far, but Draper late Thursday said he wasn't able to immediately confirm the total amount paid.   "In order to assist many of the injured victims and families of the deceased, the Reno Air Racing Association and its insurance company did issue financial resources to help with short-term medical and logistical needs," Draper wrote in an email to the RGJ.   "The (Reno Air Racing Association) board of directors felt very strongly about helping these affected individuals and families and asked that this money be made available without regard to its legal liability. It is not intended to represent a settlement of any kind and is in no way an admission of liability."   He noted that race association members have not commented on the crash since last month because they are parties to the federal investigation and aren't allowed to make public statements about the tragedy. He said Thursday the association's "commitment is to fully comply with the NTSB and its investigation, providing whatever information or resources are requested."   Draper said the association has just begun to focus on the future of the 48-year-old Reno Air Races.   "We recognize that there will be many hurdles, both in and out of our control," he wrote. "However, the Reno Air Racing Association is committed to preserving this unique aviation event and will work and prepare accordingly."   He wrote that the investigation and "numerous reviews" must be completed before the association can speculate on "the timing or feasibility of the next event and any changes that might be necessary as it moves forward."   Frank X. Mullen Jr Reno Gazette-Journal October 28, 2011 Reno, Nevada