Judge dismisses $6.5M suit against FAA in 2016 Reno crash

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled against the family of a pilot killed in 2016 who sought more than $6.5 million from the Federal Aviation Administration in a lawsuit that blamed air traffic controllers for a fatal plane crash near Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

The widow and two children of John Brown filed the suit in 2019 after the National Transportation Safety Board concluded miscommunication between Brown and the control tower likely contributed to the small plane’s crash during an attempted landing, killing Brown and a passenger.

Brown, an experienced pilot and professional flight instructor who was 73 years old, apparently was unable to recover from wake turbulence caused by nearby aircraft, the NTSB said. The board also cited the pilot’s judgment, alertness and fatigue as factors in the crash.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du agreed with the government’s lawyers who argued that final responsibility for the safety of the aircraft during the landing approach rested with the pilot.

“Brown’s negligence was the sole cause of the crash,” she said in Wednesday’s ruling dismissing the case.

The lawsuit had argued that the air traffic controllers were negligent because they failed to make clear there were two Boeing 757s — a UPS cargo plane and a FedEx cargo plane — cleared to land ahead of Brown’s single-engine Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza.

Brown thought there was only one, the lawsuit said. His plane hit the second cargo plane’s turbulence and crashed in a recreational vehicle park in Sparks about one-half mile (0.8 kilometer) from the airport runway on Aug. 30, 2016.

A passenger, James Elliker, also died in the crash of the plane, which took off from Henderson Executive Airport outside Las Vegas about 4 p.m. that day. Elliker, 50, was a co-founder and president of Victory Woodworks in Sparks.

The lawsuit argued that the air traffic controllers should have realized during an exchange of radio conversations with Brown that he had mistaken one of the 757 cargo planes for the other one.

Judge Du disagreed.

“Brown’s failure to avoid the wake turbulence generated by FedEx Flight 1359 was the sole, proximate cause of the accident,” Du wrote in the 20-page ruling.

“Had Brown exercised the standard of care expected of a pilot, particularly one of his experience and qualifications, and adhered to standard wake turbulence avoidance procedures, the accident would not have happened,” she said.

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