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$25 million lawsuit filed in Reno air race crash
A Texas physician who lost her husband when a vintage plane crashed into the tarmac at the Reno National Championship Air Races, killing 11 and injuring about 70, filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday in Texas state court.

The suit, the first to be filed after the Sept. 16 crash, claims the Reno Air Racing Association’s conduct was “motivated out of a drive for profit and a disregard for safety” making it guilty of negligence.

The suit was filed in the Collin County, Texas, District Court by Houston-based lawyer Anthony Buzbee on behalf of Dr. Sezen Altug, wife of Craig Salerno, who was killed instantly in the Sept. 16 crash.

“It’s pretty obvious that the promoters of this event realized it was dangerous and even though they were involved in inspecting the aircraft, they did not take adequate precautions to protect spectators, or let the spectators know what the real risks were,” Buzbee said.

Reno Air Racing Association chief executive Michael Houghton said he had not seen the suit and could not respond in depth.

“We’re still dealing with the emotional tragedy that took place in September, and lawsuits were not unexpected,” said Houghton. “Until we can read it, I can’t say much more.”

He said his condolences go out to Salerno’s family.

“I can’t understand what the contentions in the suit might be,” he said, “It will be up to the courts to determine the validity of the claims.”

Besides the air racing association, the suit also names pilot Jimmy Leeward, who was killed in the crash, his Ocala, Fla.-based racing team called Leeward Air Ranch, Texas-based mechanic Richard Shanholtzer of Frontier Aviation, Aeroacoustics Inc. and Aero-Trans Corp., the owner of the Galloping Ghost.

The Leeward Air Ranch, Shanholtzer, Aeroacoustics and Aero-Trans Corp. could not immediately be reached for comment.

Salerno, 50, of Friendswood, Texas, was a private pilot, volunteer firefighter and worked as a dispatcher for Continental Airlines, according to Buzbee. He had been invited by friends to sit in the box-seat section to watch the races, and was there when the modified P-51 Mustang lost control and slammed into the tarmac at about 400 mph, the suit said.

Salerno is survived by his wife, Altug, and an 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, Buzbee said.

The National Transportation Safety Board began its investigation into the cause of the crash immediately, but its final report may not be complete until next year.

NTSB investigators in Reno noted that photographs showed that a piece of the airplane’s tail piece had fallen off before the crash. The elevator trim-tab keeps the plane flying level.

The P-51 Mustang had just rounded the final pylon when it pitched up, before rolling to the right and then went nose-first into the tarmac.

Buzbee said they filed the suit now because the NTSB has named the race promoter and the Federal Aviation Administration as parties in the case, and is allowing them to participate in the investigation. Buzbee said they want to be sure that the victims have a voice in that probe.

He said he voiced his concerns in a letter to the NTSB, and said the next step was to file a lawsuit to be sure they are included in any decisions made.

“It is flat out wrong to allow a private company whose entire viability may hinge on an investigation to participate as a party in that investigation,” Buzbee said. “We hope (the NTSB) realizes that people are watching.”

The P-51 Mustang has a history of fatal crashes, the suit said, and there is “a long history of senseless mishaps, injuries and death at air shows in the United States and all over the world,” the suit said. “The Reno air crash was the third-deadliest in U.S. history.”

The suit said that the air race association knew that there had been deaths at previous air races but “did not inform those wishing to purchase tickets, ticket holders or spectators of those deaths,” the suit said.

The association also knew about previous P-51 crashes, and problems the P-51 had at prior air race events, but didn’t warn spectators, the suit said.

“Defendant RARA was aware that the racing planes would be flying at speeds in excess of 500 mph, wing to wing, little more than 100 feet from the ground and that this would create a great risk of danger to spectators,” the suit said. But the association did not tell spectators of those risks, the suit said.

The association did not “take adequate precautions to ensure spectator safety,” the suit said. and the people involved in modifying the Galloping Ghost did not adequately test the airplane to ensure its safety, the suit said.

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