A jury in Franklin County, Mo., awarded $28 million in punitive damages against a Connecticut airplane parts manufacturer in a case arising out of the 2006 crash of a skydiving plane at Sullivan Regional Airport that killed six. The jury earlier had awarded $4 million each to five families for the loss of their children. The family of the sixth victim was not part of this lawsuit. The crash was blamed on a defective engine part made by Doncasters, Inc.
The July 29, 2006 crash involved a DeHavilland Twin Otter airplane. The jurors heard testimony from air crash investigators, metallurgists and aircraft design engineers. Evidence was introduced during the trial revealing that Doncasters used a different alloy in a compressor turbine blade than called for by Pratt and Whitney Canada, the engine’s manufacturer. Doncasters sold the part for half of its normal cost. The part broke causing the right engine to blow up. Witnesses reported, and a photograph showed, smoke and flames coming from the crippled engine just after take-off and moments before the 39-year-old plane nose-dived. The crippled plane struck a utility pole and tree and landed near a house.
The eight people aboard the twin-engine plane knew it was going to crash and suffered 52 seconds of “pre-impact terror.” Among those killed in the accident were: Victoria Delacroix, 22, a counselor at a summer camp for disabled children, who was making her first jump. The other victims were all experienced skydivers. They include Melissa Berridge, 38, who was a staff member for Sen. Claire McCaskill’s election campaign; Robert Cook, 22, a senior civil engineering student at the University of Missouri at Rolla, who had completed 1,700 jumps; Rob Walsh, 44, a freelance photographer and certified sky diving instructor, who had made more than 5,000 jumps. Scott Cowan, 42, of Sullivan, worked as a pilot for American Eagle Airlines, and was co-owner of Quantum Leap Skydiving, was piloting the plane when it crashed. David Pasternoster, 34, was killed, but his family was not a party to the lawsuit. Another person, a woman, who was a first-time skydiver, survived the crash.
Doncasters misled and manipulated the Federal Aviation Administration into approving this aircraft engine part. An FAA certification officer testified that the company hid key documents showing that the part in question failed performance tests. The jury also learned of eight other engine failures due to same part breaking. After it was determined the part was defective, a company official testified the company planned to continue selling it.
Gary C. Robb, a lawyer with Robb & Robb, a firm located in Kansas City, Mo., represented the five families and he did a very good job for them. The $48 million verdict is believed to be the third largest ever awarded in a Missouri airplane or helicopter crash case.