Bicyclist files suit against Napa Valley Balloons

2011-07-26T00:00:00Z 2011-07-27T13:57:35Z Bicyclist files suit against Napa Valley BalloonsKERANA TODOROV Napa Valley Register
July 26, 2011 12:00 am  • 

A woman has filed suit in Napa County Superior Court alleging that a landing hot-air balloon injured her as she rode her bike in the Carneros district. 

In the complaint, attorney James V. Jones of Napa said his client, Pamela Contos, was riding her bicycle on Henry Road at about 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 24, 2009, when the pilot working for Napa Valley Balloons Inc. allowed a rope from a descending balloon to hang down directly in her path.

The lawsuit alleges that the rope wrapped around her neck and lifted her off the bike before she was thrown to the ground, Jones said. 

Contos suffered multiple injuries to her neck, back, head, legs, right arm and left shoulder, Jones said in the complaint filed July 12. She also sustained a severe gash across her neck, dental injuries, abrasions and bone fractures, according to the court filing. 

Her bicycle and equipment were damaged or destroyed at a cost of $2,000, the suit alleges.

The October 2009 incident occurred east of Dealy Lane, according to the California Highway Patrol. 

According to the Register’s news account, the hot-air balloon crew immediately helped Condos until emergency personnel arrived at the scene. She was transported to Queen of the Valley Medical Center, the CHP said.

Contos, a program manager at Synergy, a medical fitness center at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, was not able to work for five months, according to the court filing. 

While Contos is doing better, she has had to undergo multiple medical procedures, Jones said recently.

According to the complaint, Contos will require medical care and continue to incur medical expenses “in an amount unknown to plaintiff at this time.”

The complaint alleges negligence by Napa Valley Balloons Inc., and the pilot, Gabriel Gundlin.

Besides general monetary damages, Contos seeks to be reimbursed for all medical and incidental expenses, loss of earnings and earning capacity, $2,000 in personal property damages, as well as legal expenses, according to the complaint.

A representative for Napa Valley Balloons could not be reached for comment. 

According to its website, the company was founded in 1980 and has been featured on national TV, including NBC’s “Today Show.” Its pilots, the website says, are among the most experienced in the Napa Valley. In 2001, former “first daughter” Chelsea Clinton flew with Napa Valley Balloons. 

A case management meeting is scheduled for Dec. 19 in Napa County Superior Court.

Copyright 2016 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(31) Comments

  1. funnyme
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    funnyme - July 26, 2011 12:10 am
    Sue-happy society :)

    [big L on my forehead]
  2. Dirty Napkin
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    Dirty Napkin - July 26, 2011 5:41 am
    You know what the sad part is.. Sometimes, I wish I could lasso the bike riders and make them ride in the bike lane.. There sense of entitlement is outrageous! Sounds like an accident.. An unfortunate accident...!
  3. DannyK
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    DannyK - July 26, 2011 7:27 am
    How could she not have been aware of a descending balloon with a rope hanging down and undoubtedly, the shouts from the poeple aboard the balloon? When I ride I'm always aware of everything around me.
  4. Skeptik
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    Skeptik - July 26, 2011 8:03 am
    A lot more detail need be disclosed than the little bit in this "article" before the snarky club opines on matters of extenuation. An individual is entitled to be made whole. It seems on the slight morsel of information presented there are damages. Leave it to the courts. You're commenting on someones misfortune and making judgements for your entertainment.
  5. Local Yokel
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    Local Yokel - July 26, 2011 8:32 am
    Ouch!! Nasty injuries sustained in this freakish accident.
    I agree with Danny K though, how could she have NOT seen this coming? I hope she was not using those rose colored glasses that so many cyclists wear when they ride - I am a cyclist, you cannot touch me.

    We all know balloons are difficult to steer in any degree of exactitude.

    Personal responsibility?

    No doubt her health care provider is insisting she persues this lawsuit in an effort to escape some or all of the costs of her extended medical care.
  6. jluros
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    jluros - July 26, 2011 8:57 am
    I'd be surprised that something like this would be hard to see coming: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVj9ZEVifI4 . They aren't exactly the fastest aircraft in the sky.
  7. FancyPants
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    FancyPants - July 26, 2011 9:39 am
    Strange, I always thought you could swerve or turn while riding a bicycle. Terrible injuries, but they sound like they could have been avoided.
  8. lupmart
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    lupmart - July 26, 2011 9:48 am
    As skeptik points out, there's not a lot of information here by which to judge the situation. I wonder what the whole story is from both sides. It is just hard to visualize how this is possible, although obviously the woman got hurt badly somehow. I hope the Register follows up past this sensational article to tell us what actually was presented in court.
  9. notanapkinanymore
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    notanapkinanymore - July 26, 2011 10:06 am
    She shouldn't have to pay anything. The balloon company will be fine because they have ins. This sounds like a one in a million shot for the rope to actually wrap around her neck. Were there witnesses or could she have fallen off her bike?
  10. Sandra
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    Sandra - July 26, 2011 10:22 am
    The thing is, the rope should not of been hanging down. I would assume when riding a bike, you are looking for cars, potholes, and road side obstructions, not something descending from the sky. It is akin to a piano falling on someone out of a highrise window....Who expects that? She isn't even suing for pain and suffering, but just to be reimbursed financially for what this cost her. I have met Pam, and I know this impacted her immensely. I am surprised the balloon companies insurance did not take care of this.
    Hi Funnyme, yes we are a sue happy society, but in my opinion, this is not an example of that.
  11. amazed
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    amazed - July 26, 2011 10:35 am
    "According to the Register's news account, the crew immediately helped Contos ..."

    Is the Register quoting the Register?
  12. MarkMiwords
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    MarkMiwords - July 26, 2011 12:07 pm
    Wow! Give the gal a break. Who expects a rope to be dangling from the sky?
  13. Local Yokel
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    Local Yokel - July 26, 2011 2:29 pm
    From watching these balloons land in our locality, the ropes do indeed dangle from the craft in order that the ground crew can grab them and guide the basket/balloon to the desired landing spot.

    I feel very sympathetic about her nasty injuries, but fail to see how she could not have known how very close it was, these things are NOISY!
    The courts will no doubt decide who was not paying enough attention. It sounds suspiciously as if it could have been both parties.
  14. vocal-de-local
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    vocal-de-local - July 26, 2011 3:29 pm
    In response to the comment about lawsuits for insurance reimbursement: they would not file a lawsuit through the victim. If the insurance company wanted to be reimbursed, they would file a lawsuit for recovery of costs on their own. It's possible that both the insurance company and the victim are filing lawsuits (unless the insurance company does not feel it's worth their time and effort).
  15. imantycris
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    imantycris - July 26, 2011 4:40 pm
    I don't think even good balloon pilots are able to control their balloons very well. When I first moved into my home in the area near Terrace and Saratoga the balloons were repeatedly making emergency landings nearby in any vacant space they could find. One clipped a tree in my neighbor's yard and another barely missed my chimney. It got so that I hated the sound of their gas burners overhead. I think they are great to watch at a distance but should avoid hovering near homes and over roadways. Thankfully the vacant spaces around me were filled with houses and the balloons don't come here anymore.
  16. lucylutoo
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    lucylutoo - July 26, 2011 6:35 pm
    To DannyK, Local Yokel,jluros, and those of you who think you could have avoided this accident. May I suggest in the future you read the original story before you come to such a conclusion. Had you done so I do not believe you would have made the comments you did here.
  17. lupmart
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    lupmart - July 26, 2011 8:29 pm
    lucylutoo ... I didn't see that link ... what is interesting is the Register's own accounts are somewhat contradictory. The original article makes it sound like the balloon basket was landed and she was essentially clotheslined. The second article is more vague and sensational ... sounds like a balloon was landing and she was somehow lassoed by a dangling rope. It also makes it sound like she was lifted in the air by a flying balloon, which certainly sounds crazy but doesn't at all sound like what happened in the original account.
  18. glenroy
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    glenroy - July 27, 2011 7:40 am
    Balloon pilots have no control….they can go up and they can go down but the wind controls where they go….that’s not to say it doesn’t require skill, it certainly does requires that to float and land on of these contraptions safely.
  19. MyOpinionIs
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    MyOpinionIs - July 27, 2011 8:12 am
    This article did sound a bit sensational. Even if she did run into the dangling rope, how did it get wrapped around her neck enough to lift her from her bicycle?

    As for where balloons land, I live adjacent to Alston Park. Seeing them land in the streets around here is a regular occurrence when they can't make it to the park. As far as I know no structural damage has occurred... yet.
  20. orchid lady
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    orchid lady - July 27, 2011 1:11 pm
    "Contos approached a hot-air balloon that was halfway on the right shoulder of the roadway and half in the west lane shortly after 9 a.m., the CHP said. She attempted to veer left and maneuver past the hot-air balloon but as she passed she felt a rope — which was attached from the hot-air balloon basket to the balloon’s fabric — tangle around her neck the CHP said."

    I am imagining that these are NOT the ropes used to 'catch' the balloon that hang from the basket, when landing, but the ropes attached to the balloon itself used when trying to balance the balloon, or possibly when 'deflating' it?


  21. foryourinfo
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    foryourinfo - July 27, 2011 3:21 pm
    Pamela is a wonderful woman, mother, and professional athlete and trainer and knows how important safety is. I have also lived in Carneros my entire life and the balloon companies have not always used proper procedures when rapidly descending on, many times, private property. Obviously the pilot prematurely let the rope out before the chase crew arrived causing this terrible accident. She is lucky to be alive, have some compassion and please do not be quick to judge others.
  22. NativeSH
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    NativeSH - July 27, 2011 3:42 pm
    As an avid cyclist, I have to wonder what she was looking at that she did not notice a HUGE hot air balloon over head. Bike riders should always be conscience of possible accidents ahead of them - defensive riding should be a given for any rider. And this was obviously early morning on a country road, and she just managed to hit a rope in the middle of it. . . while it was attached to a HUGE hot air balloon. While a stray rope hanging off a hot air balloon is absolutely worth questioning, it definitely sounds like the balloon pilot is not the only one at fault.
  23. littlered
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    littlered - July 27, 2011 6:24 pm
    foryourinfo said: Obviously the pilot prematurely let the rope out before the chase crew arrived causing this terrible accident. She is lucky to be alive, have some compassion and please do not be quick to judge others."

    Foryourinfo- You say do not be quick to judge others, but you seem to have no problem immediately blaming the pilot. Walk a mile in the pilots shoes too, before you judge. Maybe try flying one of those and when an accident happens, see if you're willing to blame yourself. This story does not offer enough information for anyone to make judgements, aside from the fact that this was a terrible accident, that most likely could have been avoided if each party took proper precautions.

    There is no sense in placing the blame on the woman, or the pilot, when I'm sure that none of the commenters here seem to have been witnesses to this accident.
  24. sthems
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    sthems - July 28, 2011 12:18 am
    Although I never piloted one, I was the chase crew driver for Calistoga Balloons for a while, and then moved up in the world to the balloon company with the best and most experienced pilots in the valley and worked there for a few years.

    "The Balloons are NOISY!" - Only when the burners are on, the rest of the time they are silent since they are moving at the speed of the air. Have you ever heard a feather floating? :)
    If the balloon is landing or passing low for the scenery, they won't be burning much. Also, a biker going fast has wind and road noise in their ears, and might not hear (or be able to tell how close) a balloon is.

    If the balloon was in the air and the chase crew wasn't under them and they were coming down low over a road, the ropes should not have been down, because they can get snagged on a fence post or shrub, and slam the balloon down hard.
    If that was the case, then it would likely be pilot error (or a clumsy passenger that knocked a rope loose?)
  25. Native74
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    Native74 - July 28, 2011 9:46 am
    Wow. I just read the original story and still shocked that the bicyclist chose to ride through a ballon landing on the roadway. If what I read was true she should have stopped and not continued on. Sucks for both parties to be dragged through medical problems and the other a lawsuit over it, but common sense? I've been around balloon landings a lot since I grew up in this valley and a balloon landing is not something you can dismiss casually in a car, walking or biking. Those ropes??!? Not something you mess around trying to ride through. Maybe, just maybe they blended into the countryside or she was watching the people handling the balloon, but still. It's like seeing cows cross the road or trying to get them back in their pasture when another oncoming driver continues to drive fast regardless that everyone else is stopped or trying to help. I do hope the bicyclist is better, but it's hard to tell if this more than just an accident. Again common sense comes to mind.
  26. orchid lady
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    orchid lady - July 28, 2011 4:30 pm
    "The Balloons are NOISY!" - Only when the burners are on, the rest of the time they are silent since they are moving at the speed of the air. Have you ever heard a feather floating? :)
    If the balloon is landing or passing low for the scenery, they won't be burning much. Also, a biker going fast has wind and road noise in their ears, and might not hear (or be able to tell how close) a balloon is.

    If the balloon was in the air and the chase crew wasn't under them and they were coming down low over a road, the ropes should not have been down, because they can get snagged on a fence post or shrub, and slam the balloon down hard.
    If that was the case, then it would likely be pilot error (or a clumsy passenger that knocked a rope loose?)"


    This seems to be the comment who wins "Best Common Sense" as well as "Has Experience" on this topic. I think I will go with your judgment on this.

    The rest of please stick your head out your car window doing 30mpH and tell me how well you hear :)
  27. Native74
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    Native74 - July 28, 2011 11:05 pm
    Yes, but Orchidlady she was on a bicycle...not a car and the balloon was in one of the lanes already if the previous article was correct. Maybe the next time I am lucky to hear a a balloon landing 1/4 mile plus away, I will get on my bike or perhaps my car to see if I can still hear the 'shhh' sound as it slows down it's landing. I don't recall a 'silent' landing ever, but still if you are on a bicycle and on rolling terrain such as parts of Dealy Lane, you would surely notice a balloon landing. I still am scratching my head on this one.

    P.S. - The balloons while landing can be loud if you can call the eerie noise that and voices carry here in Carneros. Though I like the sound and view - I don't like the over zealous landing crews cutting locks, taking over airport runways, etc. when they land on private or secure property...which is an entirely different story.
  28. reason-ator
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    reason-ator - July 29, 2011 10:53 pm
    orchid lady said: ""Contos approached a hot-air balloon that was halfway on the right shoulder of the roadway and half in the west lane shortly after 9 a.m., the CHP said. She attempted to veer left and maneuver past the hot-air balloon but as she passed she felt a rope — which was attached from the hot-air balloon basket to the balloon’s fabric — tangle around her neck the CHP said."I am imagining that these are NOT the ropes used to 'catch' the balloon that hang from the basket, when landing, but the ropes attached to the balloon itself used when trying to balance the balloon, or possibly when 'deflating' it? "

    Yep. If the basket/gondola was on the ground, this rope was probably hanging from the side of the ballon itself, and could be flailing around about fifteen feet away from the basket, which is where her attention was drawn to. Plus, there's the phenomena that it's easy for cyclists to be drawn towards the object they're fixated on avoiding.

  29. Oliver Kloseoff
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    Oliver Kloseoff - July 31, 2011 3:23 pm
    I'd really like to have seen in this story what the baloon company says. Does the FAA have any jurisdiction or investigative expertese or precedent knowledge of a case like this? Just from what I read and admitting I'm no expert on Avaiation Law, I think if the baloon was still in flight and something hanging off it interfered with the traffic below, then they are at fault. If I were a juror though, I'd really need some instruction from the judge as to what the law is.
  30. orchid lady
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    orchid lady - August 02, 2011 1:19 pm
    Dear Oliver- I googled your question regarding the FAA and hot-air balloons, and this is something I found from a Balloon Company...

    "The balloon in which we will fly is maintained in accordance with requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In addition, before every flight, we take all reasonable precautions to insure that the entire system is functioning properly.

    C: PILOT JUDGMENT AND CONTROL- your pilot is fully certified by the FAA as a commercial pilot, qualified to carry passengers in balloons. The pilot has to undergo specific training in the flying of balloons, and to demonstrate knowledge of weather conditions and local flying hazards."

    http://www.balloontours.com/paf.html
  31. orchid lady
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    orchid lady - August 02, 2011 1:25 pm
    "Yes, but Orchidlady she was on a bicycle...not a car and the balloon was in one of the lanes already if the previous article was correct."

    People on bicycles CAN and DO often travel at 30 mph. So try sticking your head out your window, so you can realize how the wind could in fact impede her hearing a balloon approaching until the last second, causing her to swerve in a last second attempt to avoid collision. That's all I was pointing out.

    Not to mention, there was no info on what direction the balloon approached from. If it came in from the side, slightly behind the bicyclist, that would have made it harder for her avoid. I am giving the 'right-of-way' to the cyclist, noting she was on the road, and the balloon 'cut her off'. :-)

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