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A Utah federal judge has asked the Montana Supreme Court to decide whether that state's laws allow an aviation company to pursue its claim that federal air-traffic controllers were at fault in a 2007 crash that killed three people.

In her order Monday, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell said that Montana law should prevail in the case because the Metro Aviation air ambulance was traveling intrastate when it crashed in Montana. The fact that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air-traffic controllers were at a facility in Utah was immaterial, she said, adding that the federal government has no home state.

But Campbell said Montana law is "unsettled" and asked the Montana Supreme Court to rule on whether that state's laws allow such claims in connection with the dispute between Metro Aviation and the United States.

The air ambulance crashed around 9 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2007, during a flight from Great Falls, Mont., to Bozeman. Pilot Vince Kirol, 59, and passengers Paul Erickson, a 33-year-old paramedic, and Darcy Dengel, a 27-year-old nurse, died in the crash. The crew, under contract with Benefis Healthcare, was traveling to Bozeman to pick up a patient.

Before reaching a settlement, Dengel's family alleged Metro endangered the lives of the flight crew by using only one pilot instead of two during the night flight and had not properly trained employees how to use safety equipment.

The National Transportation Safety Board later determined that pilot error was a "probable" factor in the crash. The pilot, it said, failed to maintain an adequate altitude and descended too fast when approaching the Gallatin Field Airport, which is about 11 miles west of Bozeman. The board also said night conditions and mountainous terrain also were contributing factors. The aircraft struck a tree 80 feet below the ridgeline, causing the Beechcraft 200 King Air to hit the mountainside.

After Metro Aviation settled claims brought by the passengers' families, the company and its four insurers filed a lawsuit in Montana's federal court against the U.S. government alleging FAA air traffic controllers caused the crash.

Metro Aviation alleges controllers were directing the pilot and failed to warn him of a "minimum safe altitude alert" received in Salt Lake City. Had that information been relayed to the pilot, he would have changed the angle of descent, the company maintains.

The lawsuit was transferred in May 2010 after a ruling that Utah was the proper venue because the FAA's Salt Lake Center Air Traffic Control directed and advised air traffic in Montana and any alleged act or omission occurred in Utah.

The lawsuit seeks damages that include loss of the airplane, settlement payments and related investigation and litigation costs. Metro Aviation acknowledges that such claims are barred in Utah, but argues Montana law, which allows such actions, should apply. The U.S. argues the claims are barred by laws in both Utah and Montana, and if those laws conflict, only Utah law should apply because it is the state with the "most significant relationship" to the allegations.