First lawsuit filed in Reno air race crash

A plane crashed into spectators at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, on September 16.

Story highlights

  • The pilot and 10 people on the ground were killed in the crash at the Reno air show
  • More than 60 were injured in the September 16 crash
  • The family of a spectator who died has filed the first of an expected flurry of lawsuits
The family of a spectator killed in an air race crash in September has filed suit, claiming the Reno, Nevada, crash was not a "freak accident," but was "the predictable result of a reckless drive for speed by a risk-taking pilot and crew, coupled with an insatiable drive for profit" by race organizers.
The lawsuit is the first of what is expected to be a flurry of lawsuits involving the September 16 crash, which killed the P-51D Mustang's pilot and 10 people on the ground, and injured more than 60.
The family of deceased spectator Craig Salerno, 50, of Friendswood, Texas, a dispatcher for Continental Airlines and father of two, is suing the Reno Air Racing Association that organized the race, Mustang pilot James Leeward's racing team and corporation and two enterprises that modified the plane to increase its speed.
Attorney Anthony Buzbee of Houston said he decided to file the lawsuit now -- before the National Transportation Safety Board has determined the cause of the crash -- because the NTSB designated the race organizers as a "party" to the investigation.
Buzbee said it was inappropriate for the organizers to be a party, saying the party system is intended to bring people with expertise into the investigation, but that the safety board could have obtained information from the organizers without granting them party status.
"They're basically letting the air race association inside the tent, almost like letting the association investigate themselves," Buzbee said.
The lawsuit will open up another avenue of investigation, said Buzbee, who also represents two other families. "It also lets the NTSB know that we're not questioning your credibility at this point, but we do expect a full and comprehensive investigation," he said.
Michael Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association, said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on its merits. "Having a suit filed was not unexpected," he said. "In fact it's been indicated by a large number of attorneys that suits were in the works. We're all still coping from the events that took place. ... It was a horrific event."
The lawsuit said Leeward's Mustang P-51D, as originally designed, had a top speed of 437 mph, but received extensive modifications. Its approximately 37-foot wingspan was shortened by more then 10 feet, the horizontal tail was shortened, its canopy was altered and the engine was modified to increase the speed.
The plane, known as "The Galloping Ghost," had the shortest wingspan of any P-51 Mustang in the world, the suit says.
"After these and other extensive modifications, (pilot) Leeward bragged that the plane could travel at speeds in excess of 550 mph," the lawsuit says. "The P-51D was never designed to operate at speeds approaching 550 mph."
The lawsuit also targets the air race, saying it is fundamentally different and more dangerous then popular air shows.
"In an air show, pilots are forbidden from flying toward the crowd, and all performers must remain over and fly parallel to the show line at a safe distance from spectators. In an air race, however, pilots circle a course just as cars would in a race on the ground," the lawsuit says. "This means that on at least one turn -- typically down the home stretch -- the air racers fly directly towards the spectators."
Prior to the September crash, 19 pilots had died in crashes at the Reno Air Races since their inception.
Buzbee said Salerno did not assume risk by attending the race. "I think that this concept of assuming the risk has pretty much been discredited in the law for many years," he said. "I'm not sure that anyone would say that he did anything wrong by attending the race. This is about a promoter who promoted a race, who encouraged the racers to push the limits of physics."
An NTSB spokeswoman said including an organization as a party does not affect the safety board's objectivity.
"The NTSB takes great pride in our reputation as an independent investigative agency. The purpose of an NTSB investigation is not to apportion blame or liability but to identify the accident's probable cause in the interest of preventing similar accidents from occurring in the future," spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
"Although other organizations may also conduct inquiries of their own, only the NTSB is positioned to provide a fair and objective assessment of what caused the accident and how to prevent it from reoccurring," she said.
Houghton of the racing association said one man remains hospitalized. He said race organizers hope to stage a race next year.
"There are a number of hurdles that we will be addressing as we look forward," he said, adding "At this time we're optimistic."