AIR CRASH: THE LINGERING COST OF DISASTER
It was November 29, 1963. Air Canada Flight 831 was making a routine 6.15 p.m. businessmen's run from Montreal to Toronto. Suddenly, the plane plunged into a swamp near Ste-Thérèse de Blainville, Quebec. In the crash 118 people died, and the lives and futures of some 100 families were abruptly changed. A year later, the headlines now only a memory, the books are still not closed on Canadas worst air disaster. Here is how a tragedy is measured and how its tangled aftermath affects those left behind
RICHARD J. NEEDHAM
STEPHANIE SZOSTAK is a chic, vivacious widow who lives on polyglot Havelock Street in midtown Toronto. Her house is bright and tasteful — she painted it herself from top to bottom — and in it she is raising her two school-age children on a Workmen's Compensation Board pension of $155 a month; $75 for herself, $40 for each child.
There is nothing unusual about her situation. Thousands of widows in Canada are doing the same thing on the same money—or less. What sets the blond, Polish-born Mrs. Szostak a little apart is that she lost her husband in Canada's worst air disaster — the crash of an Air Canada DC-8 at Ste-Thérèse de Blainville, Quebec, on a murky November evening a year ago, instantly taking the lives of its one hundred and eleven passengers and seven crew members.
The DC-8 was making a 6.15 p.m. businessmen's flight from Montreal to Toronto. Most of the passengers were young and middleaged men with homes in Montreal and in Toronto and other Ontario cities. As the plane plunged screaming out of the rainy overcast into a swamp, close to one hundred families had their lives abruptly changed, their hopes abruptly destroyed, their futures thrown into an uncertainty that still surrounds them.
Joseph Szostak, a forty-three-year-old draftsman who used to joke that he was too young to bother with life insurance, was one of the passengers on Flight 831. His widow is one of some eighty who lost their husbands when it crashed. His children — Wanda, thirteen, and Chester, eleven — arc two of some one hundred and fifty who lost their fathers in that moment of disaster.
Although the crash took place a year ago, the books are yet to be closed on it. Lawyers, and possibly judges, are yet to decide the financial loss each family suffered — the monetary worth of a husband, a father. Until these slowly moving decisions are made, Mrs. Szostak and the other widows of Flight 831 do not know where they stand. They, and the lawyers, and the airline are still involved in the events of November 29, 1963.
When Air Canada officials knew Flight 831 was down, their first question was: Who was on it? They went through the flight coupons turned in by passengers boarding the plane at Dorval, assembled a passenger list, and transmitted it to airline offices in each of the cities concerned — notably Toronto, where more than half the passengers had their homes.
Sales representatives of the airline in various sections of the city were each given several names off the list. Their task (only men were employed in it) was to find the nearest relatives and break the news to them. Not until this had been done was the name of any passenger released to press and radio.
Some families were waiting at Toronto’s Malton Airport, and learned the news from Air Canada representatives there. The rest — since no time could be lost — were advised by telephone. Once contact had been made between an airline representative and a bereaved family, only that representative dealt with it.
The Canadian Life Insurance Officers Association moved quickly after the crash. Getting copies of the passenger list from Air Canada, it circulated them to life-insurance firms across the country. Most of these didn’t wait for formal proof of death, but made payments on the basis of the list.
Canada’s life-insurance companies paid out a total of $3,887,860 on individual policies held by passengers and group policies held by companies they worked for. Nearly all — $3.4 million — of the $3.9 million life-insurance benefits were approved within three weeks of the disaster.
Canada’s accident insurance companies paid as promptly on behalf of those passengers who had individual or group policies with them. Their total payment on Flight 831 has been estimated at two million dollars.
The crash struck a heavy blow at the business firms for which most of the passengers worked, wiping out in one minute something like two thousand man-years of corporate talent and experience. Sarnia's Polymer Corporation had five men on the plane; other companies had two and three. This business involvement had its mitigating effect. Because most of those killed were associated with large firms, the Ste-Thérèse tragedy caused less financial hardship to the
families concerned than would otherwise have been the case.
Most of the firms had group life and accident schemes; in one firm, these came to four years’ salary for each of two employees on the plane. Stopgap arrangements — such as continuation of salaries — were made where needed.
Still remaining to be settled are the legal claims that the bereaved families have brought against Air Canada, charging negligence on its part. Most of these claims have been filed in the Supreme Court of Ontario; there are seventy in that jurisdiction, totalling close to twenty million dollars.
As events have turned out, the courts will not be called upon to decide if the airline was, or was not, negligent. Rather than fight this out, Air Canada has decided to negotiate each claim with the family concerned. It will settle out of court where it can; where it cannot, the courts will be asked only to decide the amount it is to pay.
Because Stephanie Szostak decided to go on a Workmen’s Compensation Board pension, the WCB has taken over her claim against Air Canada. The decision was, for her, pretty well inescapable. Her husband carried no individual life insurance, and no individual accident insurance. He left just sixty-nine dollars in the bank, and a house that still wasn’t paid for.
Through her husband’s company, Mrs. Szostak got four thousand dollars in group life insurance (which she used to pay off the mortgage) and $2,204 he had built up in its pension fund. His salary was continued until she started receiving her $155-a-month WCB pension, which she is entitled to because her husband died while on
company business. What will come of her claim against Air Canada remains to be seen. As matters stand (and have stood for a year), all she can be certain of is the WCB's $155 a month and such income as she can get from renting rooms in her Havelock Street house. Will she work? She doesn’t know. She took a job in a factory for a short time after her husband's death, but found herself too nervous to keep it.
Stephanie Szostak has known many hardships in her life — hunger, war and captivity by the Russians. She and her husband, who escaped from Poland to join the Royal Air Force, sought security in Canada. In large measure they found it — only to lose it again that November night.
Mrs. Szostak is not typical of the eighty women left widowed by the Ste-Thérèse crash. None of them is or could be, since each had different needs and was left in different circumstances. Some had enough to get by on, and some did not. Some had no children, and some had as many as five. Some have built themselves new lives; others have not.
Sharon Gostick continues to live in her comfortable suburban home on Arbroath Crescent in Toronto's Etobicoke Township. The death of her thirty-four-ycar-old husband left her with three small children, one of them only a year and a half old. But Eric Gostick carried life insurance with double
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Another year could pass before all claims are finally settled
indemnity; he was also covered under group accident insurance of his employer, a large finance company.
The company paid her husband’s salary for several weeks after the crash. Last September it asked Mrs. Gostick whether she felt like going back to work. If she did, it had a secretarial job for her. Mrs. Gostick accepted, and has been employed there since, with a fulltime housekeeper looking after the home and the children.
It was mainly for the children’s sake, she says, that she made a twohundred - and - fifty - thousand - dollar claim against Air Canada.
Maria Allemand, who came here as a child from Czechoslovakia, was only twenty - four when the SteThérèse crash left her a widow, with a year-old daughter to bring up. She still occupies the same pleasant apartment at Thorncliffe Park in Toronto’s north-eastern suburbs. Her Frenchborn husband, Olivier, left some life insurance—the policy had been renewed only a few weeks before his death—and his employer, a large mail-order house, had him covered with group accident insurance of fifty thousand dollars.
The company continued Mr. Allemand’s salary, then offered his widow a job as a color co-ordinator—a branch of commercial interior decorating. She accepted it and arranged with her husband’s parents, who live on another floor of the same apartment block, to look after the little girl during the day.
Just two months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Allemand was working with his associates. “I’m very happy with them,” she says. “The job was a wonderful idea. And I hope this doesn’t sound too dramatic—but part of the job was traveling. I had to take a plane out west four months after the crash, but I felt I must do it. If you fall off a horse, the best thing you can do is climb back on it again.”
Mrs. Allemand recalled that her husband didn’t take out any coin-inslot accident insurance on his Montreal flight. She says, “I do now, whenever I fly.” Her lawyers are claiming two hundred thousand dollars on her behalf.
“Why?” is the question Louisa Finkler often asks herself. Why did her five children—a girl of thirteen now, and four younger boys—have to lose their father on Flight 831?
But looking after her children (and their assortment of pets, from a Siamese cat to a snapping turtle) keeps her busy from morning to night. “They've kept me going” she says. “1 often thought it would be wonderful to have a nervous breakdown, but I’ve never had the time!”
Dark and animated, a voracious reader, Mrs. Finkler is active in community affairs at Downsview. the Toronto suburb where she continues to make her home. She takes sewing courses at night, and plans to learn Hebrew, then perhaps Russian.
She does not lack for company. Her mother, brother and sister live with her on Grand Ravine Drive, and
she is surrounded by friendly neighbors—families of Italian, Icelandic, Scottish, Polish and Ukrainian origin, who pass cakes back and forth among each other. “They are wonderful people. They still watch out for me, and every day I get three or four calls from them.”
Her husband, Cecil Finkler, was vice-president of an electronics firm, and they had moved into the Downsview house only a month before his death. Insurance left by him enabled her to keep her home and family going, and make some provision for the children’s future—“It was the only thing that made all this possible.” Mrs. Finkler is claiming five hundred thousand dollars from Air Canada.
One thing made plain in the aftermath of the Ste-Thérèse disaster is the difference between insurance claims on the one hand and damage claims on the other. In the crash of a scheduled airplane (such as Flight 831), insurance is certain, exact, immediate; payment is automatic upon death. Damage settlements, large as they may sometimes be, are slow and far from sure.
To understand the reason for this, the air traveler need only look at his ticket, which is in effect his contract with the airline concerned. All lines, Air Canada or any other, word it the same way. The line is not liable for any damage to its passengers unless the damage was due to negligence on its part.
What is negligence?
Proving negligence in an air crash is no easy task. Governments themselves, with all their technical resources, are often unable to determine what made a plane crash or explode. Canada's Department of Transport spent almost a year, and more than a million dollars, before it was able even to begin its official inquiry into the cause of the Ste-Thérèse disaster.
Faced with this problem, the lawyers conducting the damage suits in a present-day plane crash are inclined to fall back on the century-old legal maxim, Res ipsa loquitur—“The thing speaks for itself,” and this is the wording of the writs filed against Air Canada in the Ste-Thérèse disaster.
What this argument means, simply stated, is that with air travel so generally safe and reliable, there must have been negligence or the plane wouldn't have crashed. It is up to the court in each case to determine whether it will apply the doctrine. If the court does apply it, the airline has the task of showing it was not negligent. These processes, by their nature. are lengthy ones.
In the matter of liability, it’s important to notice the distinction between domestic and international flights. A domestic flight is one in which the passenger is ticketed from one place inside the country to another. All the passengers on Flight 831 were making domestic flights, getting on at Montreal and intending to get off at Toronto and other points in Canada.
In fatalities on a domestic flight there is no limit to the amount a widow can seek or be awarded. A recent crash at New York brought one widow a domestic-flight judgment of $425,000; another, also at New York, brought the widow concerned $645,000.
Several of the Ontario claims being made against Air Canada in the SteThérèse crash are as high as the five hundred thousand dollars brought by Mrs. Finkler. In the Quebec Superior Court at Montreal, damage claims totalling $1,098,000 have been filed against Air Canada in respect of a husband and wife, parents of three children, who were on Flight 831.
On international flights, the amount a widow can seek or get is severely limited. An international flight is one in which the passenger is ticketed from one country to another; the whole of such a flight is considered international, even those parts of it between two points in the same country. Thus, an international flight is not simply one from Montreal to London, or from Toronto to Tampa. It is one from Toronto to Montreal if the passenger is ticketed to London. It is one from Winnipeg to Vancouver if the passenger is ticketed to Tokyo.
Most of the world’s airlines, including those of Canada, operate under the Warsaw Convention ( 1929). This limits the carrier’s liability on an international flight to $8,300 per passenger. However, some forty signatories —Canada again included—have now agreed to the Hague Protocol (1955) amending the Warsaw Convention. This protocol finally came into effect last year, raising the internationalflight liability of these — but only these — countries to $16,600.
The Warsaw Convention bases liability on the same principle of Res ipsa loquitur as has been invoked in the Ste-Thérèse claims. It puts the onus on the airline concerned to prove it took “all necessary measures to avoid damage.” Since proving this is most difficult, the airline will normally pay the $16,600 without court action. It is equally difficult, however, to get more than $16,600; this requires the claimant to prove not merely negligence on the airline’s part, but “wilful misconduct.”
(The United States has not agreed to the Hague Protocol. Liability of U. S. airlines on international flights therefore remains at the pre-Hague figure of $8,300 per passenger.)
But airlines do not always stick to the letter of the law, especially in domestic-flight crashes with their unlimited damages. They may deem it wiser to avoid courtroom fights over liability and instead—while not admitting themselves liable—to settle the various damage claims out of court.
This is what Air Canada did after one of its planes struck a mountain near Vancouver in December 1956, causing the deaths of fifty-nine passengers. No court found Air Canada liable but a settlement was made by the company in each case. The line is following the same pattern in the
actions brought by Canadian families bereaved in the Ste-Thérèse crash. While not admitting liability, it is negotiating with the families and has agreed “not to dispute liability for damages to be assessed by the courts in these actions.”
What this means is that where Air Canada can agree with a family on the amount to be paid, the action will be withdrawn. Where agreement cannot be reached, the action will go to the courts—not as a question of the airline’s liability, but simply as a question of the family’s financial loss. Each side will argue the amount of damage, and the courts will finally decide it, basing the decision on such factors as the age of the man who died, his probable earnings had he lived, and the number and ages of people dependent on him.
But these things take time. The crash took place a year ago; another year could pass before all the claims arising out of it have been settled.
Two years is a long time of waiting, a long time of uncertainty. This is when life and accident insurance, individual and group, can play an important part in an air crash. What part did they play for the families bereaved in Flight 831? The large number of businessmen on board meant it carried more life and accident insurance than the ordinary flight. But not every family was protected well, or even moderately.
The $3.9 million paid out by Canadian companies in life insurance, individual and group, on the flight averages out at $35,000 for each of the one hundred and eleven passengers. There were payments substantially higher than this—up to $100,000. A striking case is related by the Canada Life Assurance Company. One of the passengers on Flight 831 was a young man who had taken out a new individual policy, and had paid five monthly premiums totalling $119.50. That $119.50 in premiums gave his family $67,200 on one policy alone.
There were payments substantially lower than the $35,000 average, and these are notable in the case of indi-
vidual policies. One major life insurance company had eighteen individual policyholders on the plane, but the payment on all of their policies was only $228,000, an average of $13,000 per policyholder. Another had fourteen individual policyholders on the pEane; the payment on all of their policies totalled $172,500, an average of just over $12,000.
It is evident that group life insurance (as a complement to individual life insurance) played an important role in assisting the families concerned. The companies have made no calculation: but it seems clear that one third to one half of the $3.9 million life insurance they paid out was the group kind carried by employers.
Group accident insurance also played an important role, with several $50,000 payments to families on this account. With individual accident insurance, there were payments as high as $150,000. But these again were the exception. The average accident insurance coverage on Flight 831 was under $20,000; and many of the passengers were not covered at all.
The irony of this is that large amounts of accident insurance were at hand—the scheduled-trip variety sold at machines and counters in every sizable airport. Covering a single flight, one-way or round-trip, this costs 50 cents per $15,000. It may be bought to a limit of $75,000 ($2.50) by feeding quarters into a machine which records and validates the application; the purchaser gets a policy ready for mailing to his home, office or beneficiary. It may be bought to a limit of $300,000 ($10) across the counter.
How much insurance, if any, people buy at the airport is often a matter of chance and whim. It might depend on how many quarters a man had in his pocket. It might depend on whether he reached the airport in good time, or made it at the last minute. It might depend on the location of the insurance machines and counters at the airport.
Aviation insurance men say the machines and counters at Dorval—from which Flight 831 left—are poorly placed, off the passengers’ beaten track. They say that in most of Canada’s airports you can’t help noticing the machines and counters; but at Dorval you must first think of buying insurance, then go hunting for somewhere to buy it. For this reason, they claim, the amount of scheduled-trip insurance sold at Dorval is below the national average.
Personal feelings enter into the matter. Some men do not buy scheduledtrip insurance because its upsets their wives to get the policy in the mail the next day. Some men buy it only when they get a “hunch” that they ought to, or when there has been a recent crash, or when the weather is bad. Most men never buy it at all.
It so happened that the bad weather on the evening of November 29, 1963, caused a monstrous traffic jam in the whole Montreal area. Many of the people on Flight 831 caught it with only minutes to spare; they possibly intended to buy coin or counter scheduled-trip insurance, but didn't have the time. The amount of such insurance carried on the flight is estimated at $800,000—less than $27 worth for
a passenger list of one'hundred and eleven people.
And shocked as Canadians were by the crash when it happened—by the thought that it might have happened to them—it remains the case today that only one in five of those traveling by air has purchased any sort of travel-accident coverage. They have faith in the airlines; and with reason. But accidents still happen.
There no longer is a Flight 831. It was dropped, officials say. in the
normal process of rescheduling. But five times in the ordinary day, an Air Canada DC-8 leaves Montreal for Toronto. A few minutes after takeoff it passes over Ste-Thérèse and the memorial garden cemetery that Air Canada maintains there in perpetuity.
Triangular in shape, the memorial garden adjoins and is reached through the Ste-Thérèse parish cemetery. Pine trees have been planted around it, and stone benches placed along the
path which borders the communal grave. On one side of the garden there are two massive boulders dug out of the site, four miles away, where Flight 831 went down. On the other is a simple granite monument bearing the names of the one hundred and eighteen people who were aboard.
A family comes every Sunday and places fresh flowers in front of the monument. The flowers are not marked for any one of the dead, and so pay tribute to all of them. ★