One crisp, clear morning, both Susan Delacroix and Kimberly Dear boarded a small plane with six experienced skydivers. They were new to an exciting sport they wanted to experience for themselves.
Little did they know, the plane they were boarding would prove to be much more dangerous than the skydiving itself.
Shortly after taking off, one of the engines on the small plane caught fire. With a disabled engine, the plane struggled to gain altitude and floated over the treetops before crashing. All told, five occupants lost their lives, including Delacroix. Dear was the only passenger in the plane to escape any serious injury.
Following each plane crash, an investigation is done to determine its cause.
In the months following the tragic incident, it was determined the engine fire was caused by a compressor turbine blade manufactured by Doncasters, Inc.
The engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney Canada, had exact requirements on which type of metal should be used. Doncasters though used a less expensive metal alloy – one that couldn’t handle the heat, force and speed of the engine.
Parents of most of the deceased joined forces and hired attorneys Gary C. Robb and Anita Robb of Kansas City, MO. Family members of a couple of the other deceased filed a separate suit in federal court. The other two passengers (…besides Dear) who survived with paralyzing injuries sued separately but settled prior to any trial.
The turbine blade in questions “was only in the engine less than 2,400 flight hours, which is less than half the time before it was scheduled for its first maintenance check,” according to Robb.
But during the investigation/discovery phase of the case, the plaintiffs learned more about the company’s actions and determined them to be more egregious than first thought.
For example, out of 5,000 employees on staff at Doncasters, not one of them was an actual engineer.
And although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had approved the turbine blade based on test results provided by Doncasters, it was later determined that the company didn’t report that the blade had previously failed internal performance tests.
Through their investigation, attorneys for the deceased also learned that turbine blades from the company had caused at least 8 previous engine failures.
In order to present an airtight case, attorneys for the plaintiffs called in multiple experts to testify. Engineers, metallurgists, an FAA representative and even an engineer from Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer testified. The representative from Pratt & Whitney testified that they would have never knowingly used a blade made of that particular alloy “…because it could not withstand the engine’s operation.”
Another expert testified about pre-impact terror and described the fear passengers likely experienced when they realized the plane was going to crash.
Despite all of this testimony, the most significant part came when a Doncasters corporate representative testified. Robb says that the company’s defense though may have been the convincing factor for the jury. The company didn’t call any engineers or witnesses to testify that the turbine was safe or had been designed safely.
After a three-week trial, $48 million was awarded – $4 million to each family in compensatory damages and $28 million in punitive damages.
After the verdict was read, several jurors expressed anger toward the parts maker.
“They understood that the company cared far more about profit than it did about safety,” comments Robb.
Although he expects the company to appeal, Robb says the verdict will serve as a powerful warning to other companies.
“Aircraft parts manufacturers will learn that they can’t cut corners on safety, because if they do, they will be caught,” comments Robb.
Aviation accidents can be quite scary and deadly, even in a small plane like the one used in the skydiving excursion. Pilot error, mechanical failure/defects are just a couple of ways accidents can occur. If you’ve lost a loved one or were seriously injured in a plane crash, aviation accident attorneys at Knoxville’s Gilreath & Associates possess years of experience representing families affected by a tragedy like this.
To learn more, visit us online or call our offices at (800) 637-7024 today.
Original story appeared in the August, 2011 issue of Trial magazine