Wrongful-Death Lawsuit Filed Over Florida Airport Shooting

Esteban Santiago, right, leaves the Broward County jail for a hearing in federal court on Jan. 17, 2017, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Santiago was arrested after a Jan. 6 shooting rampage at a Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport baggage claim area that left several people dead and others wounded. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – The son of an elderly woman fatally shot in the 2017 Fort Lauderdale airport massacre sued Delta Air Lines, claiming lax security protocols allowed the shooter to pick up his checked gun from a baggage service station and freely tote the weapon through a terminal before opening fire on a crowd.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Broward County court on Monday, Timothy Woltering claims the shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport could have been prevented if Delta and Allied Universal, a security firm enlisted by the airport, had put in place better security measures to monitor passengers picking up guns checked in their luggage.

Woltering’s mother Olga was one of five people killed in the attack.

The lawsuit says that when the shooter, Iraq War veteran Esteban Santiago Ruiz, arrived at the airport around noon, Jan. 6, 2017, he received a notification that  his checked gun case was ready for pickup at a Delta baggage service office, after which point he was able to readily retrieve his Walther 9mm pistol, take it to a bathroom, load it, and return to the Terminal 2 baggage claim area unhindered.

He opened fire on random people, aiming at their heads, according to the arrest affidavit. He allegedly shot until he was out of ammunition and then surrendered to Broward County sheriff’s officers.

Woltering’s attorney David DiPietro said in an interview that private airlines’ decision to let passengers fly with firearms in their checked luggage is driven by profit.

“There’s no legal requirement that private airlines need to transport passengers’ firearms. They do it because of economics. If Delta doesn’t do it, and you want to carry a firearm, then Delta loses money [to competing  airlines]. So at the end of the day, this is about money for them,” DiPietro said.

“If your passengers want to have a firearm and you want the business, you need to make sure your other passengers are safe,” he said.

The lawsuit claims Santiago should have drawn scrutiny from Delta long before he arrived in Florida. Among other red flags, the complaint claims, he had booked a same day, one-way ticket from his home state of Alaska to Ft. Lauderdale, was traveling alone, and  had no baggage checked except for his gun case.

Santiago had previously booked a New Year’s Eve flight to New York City’s La Guardia Airport, but he never took the trip, according to DiPietro. If he had attempted to bring a gun with him to La Guardia to carry out a shooting there, he ran the risk of arrest upon arrival, as La Guardia generally does not allow incoming passengers to travel with firearms, the attorney said.

The defendants in the litigation include Delta, Allied Universal, Broward County, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

“Defendants had knowledge of the dangerous and long-standing flaws in … airline and airport security,” the lawsuit states. “Yet [they] failed to take reasonable action to prevent harm to passengers.”

Delta, Allied Universal and the airport failed to ensure “an adequate number of security personnel” were manning the baggage claim area, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the pleading, Olga Woltering’s husband of nearly 65 years, Ralph, was with her when the shots rang out, and he stayed at her side after she was fatally wounded, as police tried to secure the scene.

The couple had flown to Fort Lauderdale for a family cruise. They had initially scheduled their flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale for Jan. 7 but changed the date to Jan. 6 to avoid anticipated bad weather in Atlanta, the lawsuit says.

DiPietro said Ralph, a 91-year-old retired jet mechanic and Air Force veteran, is still recovering from the loss.

“Olga was his life. He’s lost a lot of his purpose. Luckily for him, he has a very loving family, four children, and a lot of grandchildren who live nearby,” DiPietro said.

DiPietro said Ralph had never sued anyone in his life and had reservations about filing a claim over the shooting.

“It’s something that, as a family, they decided to do. It’s one of these things where you can push our society to make things safer, and not let somebody die in vain. . . . Hopefully our lawsuit brings in procedures so that this doesn’t happen in the future,” DiPietro said.

Filed Monday night in Broward County state court, the lawsuit has been in the works since last year. DiPietro’s firm, concerned about Ralph’s potential health issues, in the summer of 2016 filed a petition to perpetuate his civil testimony about the shooting.

Since the Ft. Lauderdale airport attack, Delta has tried out new security measures, including placing ties or wrapping on checked gun cases to prevent easy access to firearms upon pickup, and hiring off-duty police officers to escort passengers after they pick up guns from checked luggage stations, according to DiPietro.

In response to a question about the litigation, a spokesperson for Delta wrote to Courthouse News that the airline “is saddened by the 2017 Fort Lauderdale tragedy but has no other comment at this time.”

Allied Universal has not responded to a request for comment.

Santiago is facing the death penalty in the pending criminal case against him over the shooting. He entered an initial plea of not guilty to 22 federal counts on  Jan. 30, 2017.

The FBI revealed shortly after the shooting that Santiago had come into an Anchorage-area FBI office in Nov. 2016, professing that he was the victim of government mind control. Santiago was with his infant son when he visited the office. He said he was having “terroristic [sic] thoughts” and had come under the influence of the Islamic State, according to an Anchorage police chief.

The FBI in Alaska turned Santiago over to the Anchorage Police Department, and he was briefly confined to a mental health facility, while his gun, the one he purportedly later used in the airport shooting, was placed in the department’s custody.

Anchorage police had to comply with his request for the return of his gun in late 2016 because  he had not been adjudicated as mentally ill, according to Karen Loeffler, U.S. Attorney for Alaska at the time of the shooting.

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