Airport can't be held liable for Comair Flight 5191 crash, Supreme Court rules

jbrammer@herald-leader.comOctober 2, 2009 

FRANKFORT — Lexington's Blue Grass Airport and its board members cannot be held legally responsible for the 2006 crash of Comair Flight 5191 that killed 49 people, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.

The state's highest court upheld a Fayette Circuit Court ruling that the airport board could not be sued because it is part of the Urban County Government and is entitled to sovereign immunity.

Sovereign immunity, a common-law concept that predates America's independence from England, protects most government entities from most lawsuits.

"By providing essential transportation infrastructure to the citizens of the commonwealth, both the board and corporation are exercising a function integral to state government," the court's ruling said. "Therefore, both entities are covered by sovereign immunity and cannot be held liable in tort."

Comair sued the airport, saying it shared blame for the crash because of poor runway markings, bad signage, lighting problems and other issues related to a $35 million runway repaving project.

Flight 5191 crashed Aug. 27, 2006, as its pilots tried to take off from the airport's general-aviation runway, which was too short to accommodate the plane. The co-pilot was the only survivor of the crash.

"While we are disappointed, we respect the court's ruling," Comair spokeswoman Christine Wever said. "Because of pending litigation, we cannot comment further at this time."

Airport lawyer Kevin Henry of Lexington said he was "very pleased" with the ruling.

"There has never been any factual question that the only cause of the crash was pilot error," Henry said.

Comair Inc. had appealed the Fayette Circuit Court decision to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. But the appeals court sent the case to the Supreme Court, saying it would be best to have the high court decide the issue.

The airport has said that all blame for the crash falls on Comair and Flight 5191's pilots.

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