Remembering the Victims of the Air Midwest Flight 5481 Crash on the 20th Anniversary and the Airline’s Unprecedented Public Apology

Statements from the Shepherds and their law firm, who obtained the public apology from Air Midwest for the crash of flight 5481 twenty years ago

Charlotte, North Carolina, Jan. 05, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- January 8, 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the Air Midwest Flight 5481 crash in Charlotte, North Carolina that killed all 21 people aboard. It is a day where we remember those gone too soon and the airline’s unprecedented public apology that followed. Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman and the Shepherds have issued new statements and reflect on the aftermath of the crash, the apology and aviation safety improvements 20 years later.

On January 8, 2003, Air Midwest Flight 5481 pitched up uncontrollably during takeoff, stalled, and plummeted to the ground, killing 19 passengers and two crew members.

As in every fatal airline crash, the families who lost loved ones in this disaster were devastated beyond words. Their loss was compounded when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found serious deficiencies in Air Midwest’s maintenance practices and concluded that an improperly rigged elevator control system caused the fatal crash.

The aftermath of most commercial airline crashes follows the same path. The airline and/or aircraft manufacturer offer private settlements to compensate the victims, the victims usually accept the agreements, and all sides move on from the tragedy. One of the hallmarks of these settlements is that the defendants pay the plaintiffs without admitting to any wrongdoing.

This was not going to fly with plaintiff Teresa Shepherd and her husband, Pastor Doug Shepherd, who lost their daughter, Christiana, in the Air Midwest crash.

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman represented the Shepherds and another family who lost a loved one in the Air Midwest crash. “One of the things that struck me about the Shepherds was their commitment to a higher purpose for their case,” says attorney Ronald L. M. Goldman, who worked closely with colleague Michael Baum in the Air Midwest Flight 5481 litigation. 

“The financials are a vital part in any settlement, but the Shepherds sought more than securing compensation for their losses. They were not motivated by money—they wanted acknowledgment of wrongdoing, assurances of safety changes, and, perhaps most importantly, contrition and the acceptance of responsibility for this disaster. And they weren’t hoping for these things to happen; they were conditions for settling the case.”

Goldman knew it was not going to be easy to convince Air Midwest to apologize for the crash. Defendants in legal cases of this magnitude are, to say the least, not interested in a public mea culpa. To the contrary, they almost always insist on a clause in the settlement documents expressly denying fault. The judge overseeing the case only added to the difficulty.

“The judge was upset that we were even asking for it,” Goldman recalled in an interview for the Audible podcast ‘Say You’re Sorry,’ that aired in 2021 Episode 4. “I think he was quite angry with me because he thought this was a ploy that I was using to increase the settlement amount, that we would give it up when they raised the amount of money, and we had to say, ‘No, that’s not the case’.”

It was only after the Shepherds stood up and told the settlement judge – face-to-face, they would not settle until their safety concerns and public apology were addressed that Air Midwest started seriously considering their demands. After multiple mediation sessions, Air Midwest committed to issuing an unprecedented public apology.

Today, the Shepherds reflect on the tragedy with a heavy heart but are content their demands have had a lasting effect improving aviation safety, particularly in the area of maintenance.

“Though it seems impossible, we’re approaching 20 years since the last time we said goodbye to Christiana. Grief doesn’t go away; it just becomes part of you,” stated Tereasa and Doug Shepherd.

“Regrets intensify grief. Thankfully, we have no regrets about our decision to pursue accountability and change in the airline industry. We know, through various sources, that our case and our story continue to influence air travel safety today. 

“That change would not have been remotely possible without the knowledge, wisdom, and expertise of our Baum Hedlund team. Other flight 5481 families were unable to take the fight forward for many reasons. But what Baum Hedlund did in Christiana’s name, they did for all the victims and families. They did it for all the families who, in the last 20 years, safely met their loved ones at airports, happily oblivious of what might have been had we not prevailed. 

“In the midst of our grief, shock, and confusion twenty years ago, a series of circumstances brought us to Baum Hedlund. They have fought for, respected, and protected us ever since. We are forever thankful.”

The Shepherds invited all of the families who lost loved ones in the Air Midwest Flight 5481 crash to attend the apology ceremony, which Baum Hedlund organized and held on May 6, 2005 at the crash memorial site at Douglas International Airport in Charlotte.

At the ceremony, Air Midwest President Greg Stephens told the families that the airline and its maintenance provider, Vertex, were “truly sorry and regret and apologize to everyone affected by this tragic event.”

“Air Midwest and its maintenance provider, Vertex, acknowledge deficiencies, which together with the wording of the aircraft maintenance manuals, contributed to this accident. This tragedy has caused us to investigate rigorously our policies and guidelines regarding aircraft maintenance, operation and safety in general. We have taken substantial measures to prevent similar accidents and incidents in the future, so that your losses will not have been suffered in vain. We have also implemented or are implementing the applicable NTSB safety recommendations following this accident.” – Air Midwest President Greg Stephens

Attorney Ronald L. M. Goldman closed the ceremony by discussing the meaning of justice as it applied to this case:

“Justice is given a fuller meaning when those responsible for contributing to the cause of a tragedy acknowledge their role, accept accountability, and pledge to work harder to root out and correct both the mechanical deficiencies and any culture or attitude that may allow compromises with safety to go unchallenged. Justice is universal and it is timeless, and it is a human need. While absolute justice, like perfection, is more of a goal than something that can be achieved absolutely, our quest for it should never be cynically thought of. To the contrary, it should be pursued with vigor and ardor and conviction, with honesty, with ethics and skill, and most importantly, with courage. For it takes more courage to seek justice than to seek vengeance. Aviation safety and justice owe a debt of gratitude to each of you. Not only those who are here, but each of you who wanted to be here. But we especially acknowledge Pastor Doug and Mrs. Shepherd for the fortitude and courage…to stand by their principles and their quest for a measure of justice to arise on behalf of all from this tragedy to the end that no person aboard Flight 5481 shall have died in vain. It is their hope and ours that we have delivered here today for each of you some measure of justice.”

The apology and the commitment to safety improvements has had an impact beyond Air Midwest, which ceased operations in 2008. In the Audible podcast interview, Tereasa Shepherd said:

“A friend’s son decided to be an airplane mechanic, went to a mechanic school for a particular airline that I won’t mention, and while he was doing the safety part, this airline brought up our story. He said, ‘Wait, I know those people!’ And their point was, every decision you make, every bolt you don’t turn, every job you don’t finish, affects people like this. This is what happens if you don’t do your job right. That felt really, really good.”

Ronald Goldman will retire after completing his 60th year as a practicing attorney on January 10, 2023. He cites the Air Midwest apology as one of his most significant achievements in his storied career:

“The 20th anniversary of the tragic Air Midwest 5481 crash is an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing fight for aviation safety. The lives lost, and the loving memories of each precious life, continue to spur our efforts. We believe that, out of this disaster, aviation safety has taken a step forward, as our work has led to concrete training and staffing improvements in maintenance shops. Those improvements are part of the legacy of all those touched by Flight 5481, and I am honored to have played a part in it.”

Victims of the Air Midwest Flight 5481 Crash

Caitlin Albury, 13 – Marsh Harbour, Bahamas

Nicholas Albury, 21 – Marsh Harbour, Bahamas

Robin Albury, 38 – Marsh Harbour, Bahamas

Sreenivasa Badam, 24 – India

Mark Congdon – Baltimore, Maryland

Keith Coyner – Coral Springs, Florida

Forrest Demartino – Dayton, Ohio

Sylvain Dubois – Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Richard E. Fonte, 29 – Jacksonville, North Carolina

Gary Gezzer, 42 – Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Jonathan Gibbs (first officer) – Charlotte, North Carolina

Steven J. Krassas – Richmond, Virginia

Katie Leslie (captain), 25 – Charlotte, North Carolina

Richard Lyons, 56 – Boston, Massachusetts

Ima Pearson – Las Vegas, Nevada

Christiana Shepherd, 18 – Boston, Massachusetts

Joseph M. Spiak, 46 – Boston, Massachusetts

Ganeshram Sreenivasan, 23 – India

Paul Stidham, 46 – Dayton, Maryland

Michael Otto Sullivan – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ralph Sylvia – Richmond, Virginia

About Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman is one of the most experienced aviation accident law firms in America. Since 1985, the firm has successfully litigated against nearly every major airline in the U.S. that has been involved in a crash.

The firm has represented more than 800 people from six continents and 29 countries in over 280 aviation accidents, including 70 airline crashes or incidents. The firm’s aviation attorneys have also handled more than 30 international aviation accidents. They have recovered more than half a billion for their aviation clients.

Goldman and the Shepherds appear in a docudrama re-enacting the crash and its aftermath called “Dead Weight” that originally aired on the National Geographic Channel on April 30, 2008. It can also be seen on Curious?: Science and Engineering’s YouTube channel Small Plane With Big Issues | Season 5 Episode 5 | Mayday: Air Disaster.


Robin McCall
Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman
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