ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – Just days after learning that the pilot involved in New Mexico’s deadliest hot air balloon crash had drugs in his system at the time, a lawsuit has was filed on behalf of one of the victims. A wrongful death lawsuit in the name of Martin “Marty” Martinez has been filed against the transportation company Hot Air Balloonatics LLC, Sventato LLC under which this balloon operated, as well as the estate of Nicholas “Nick” Meleski, the pilot.
“The negligence will be the entire basis of the claim,” said Christian Pezalla, an aviation attorney. “Since he owned the ball and used it, he will be responsible, and therefore his estate will be responsible for something he did or potentially responsible for something he did before he died.”
All five people on board, including Meleski, 62, were killed after the balloon hit power lines near Central and Unser before the basket detached from the envelope and fell about 100ft . This week, the FAA’s toxicology report for Meleski showed he had high levels of THC and cocaine in his blood at the time of the crash.
“Lawyers will have to figure out exactly what happened and how they’re going to resolve it,” Pezalla said. “The business is, of course, the first thing they look at, and with small businesses, sometimes the people who own them can be responsible, in addition to the business.”
Although the autopsy report is still pending, the wrongful death lawsuit was filed on behalf of Martinez, a retired Albuquerque Police and Albuquerque Public Schools officer who died alongside his wife. , Mary. Although waivers were likely signed before the ride, Pezalla says they could be challenged in light of the toxicology report.
“I can’t say if that will be the case here, but I think the lawyers for the family will argue that the waivers are not valid because negligence would have been involved or could have been involved in order to have this type of event.” Pezalla said. “Of course the attorneys for the defendants are going to argue that the waivers hold. That’s going to provide a small point of leverage for a negotiation.
Meleski’s estate is listed in the lawsuit, in addition to the operating companies under which he flew. Because of this, Pezalla says it’s possible it could impact whatever his family would inherit, but that’s for the courts to decide.
“They’re taking a while to come to the point because both sides will want to do a full investigation to make sure they understand where they stand,” Pezalla said. “In the end, these almost always settle out of court, because it’s not worth the cost of litigation for any amount of money they might be arguing over at the end of the day.”
The lawsuit seeks compensation for things like lost household income and funeral expenses, but did not state a specific amount. Martinez’s wife, Mary, was not included in that lawsuit. It is unclear if a separate case will be filed.
The National Transportation Safety Board said their investigation could take up to 24 months. Pezalla says it’s very likely the lawsuit won’t reach a settlement until after the results of the investigation are made public. A future hearing date has not yet been set.
The family of California woman, Rosemary Wooley Phillips, has been awarded $1.4 million in damages as part of a settlement. She died after falling from a hot air balloon during the 2007 Balloon Fiesta when her balloon got caught in power lines near I-25 and Montano.