ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Just days after learning the pilot involved in New Mexico’s deadliest hot air balloon crash had drugs in his system at the time, a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of one of the victims. A wrongful death suit on behalf of Martin “Marty” Martinez has been filed against ride company Hot Air Balloonatics LLC, Sventato LLC which this balloon operated under, as well as the estate of Nicholas “Nick” Meleski, the pilot.
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“The negligence will be the entire basis of the claim,” said Christian Pezalla, an aviation attorney. “Since he owned the balloon and operated the balloon, he’s going to be liable, and therefore his estate will be liable for something he did or potentially liable for something he did before he passed away.”
All five people on board, including 62-year-old Meleski, were killed after the balloon hit powerlines near Central and Unser before the basket detached from the envelope and plummeted around 100 feet. 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 work out exactly what happened and how they’re going to resolve that,” said Pezalla. “The company is, of course, the first one they look at, and with small companies, sometimes the individuals who own them can be liable, in addition to the company.”
Though 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. Though 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’ll be the case here but I think the attorneys for the family are going to argue the waivers are not valid because negligence would have been involved or may have been involved in order to have this type of occurrence,” said Pezalla. “Of course, the attorneys for the defendants are going to argue that the waivers hold. That’s going to provide a bit of a leverage point for a negotiation.”
Meleski’s estate is listed in the lawsuit, in addition to the operating companies he piloted under. Because of this, Pezalla says it’s possible this could impact anything his family would inherit, but it’s up to the courts to decide.
“They take a while to get to the point because both sides will want to do a full investigation to make sure they understand where they stand,” said Pezalla. “Ultimately these almost always settle out of court because it’s not worth the cost of the litigation for any amount of money they could be arguing over at the end of the day.”
The lawsuit does seek compensation for things like loss of household earnings and funeral expenses but did not list a specific amount. Martinez’s wife, Mary, was not listed in this suit. It’s unclear if a separate one will be filed.
The National Transportation Safety Board says their investigation could take up to 24 months to complete. Pezalla says it’s very likely the lawsuit may not reach a settlement until after that investigation’s results are public. A future court date has not yet been set.
The family of a California woman, Rosemary Wooley Phillips, received $1.4 million in damages in 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.