Four skydivers – Victoria Delacriox, Robert Cook, Melissa Berridge and Robert Walsh – departed from a regional airport in a DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter airplane piloted by Scott Cowan. Soon after takeoff, the plane’s right engine exploded. The plane crashed moments later, killing everyone aboard.
Delacroix, a 22-year-old camp counselor for children with disabilities, from England and Cook, a 22-year-old engineering student, are both survived by their parents. Berridge, a 38-year-old campaign director for a U.S. senator, and Walsh, a 44-year-old freelance photographer and certified skydiving instructor, are survived by their mothers. Cowan, 42, is survived by his father.
The survivors filed a lawsuit against Doncasters, Inc., a British manufacturer of aircraft engine parts that had manufactured a compressor turbine blade in the plane’s right engine.
The plaintiffs alleged that Doncasters improperly substituted a different metal alloy for the blade than the one specified by the engine’s manufacturer. As a result, they claimed, the blade failed when subjected to the heat and forces associated with the engine’s operation, breaking apart and causing the engine to explode.
At trial, the plaintiffs called a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification officer, who testified that the defendant hid key documents that showed that the part in question had failed required performance tests. Other evidence showed that the failure of the same part was linked to eight other engine failures.
The plaintiffs asserted that the plane’s occupants experienced a ‘pre-impact terror’ during the 52 seconds they were aware the plane was going to crash. The lawsuit also sought lost future earnings, including approximately $675,000 for Delacroix, $746,000 for Berridge, $2.08 million for Cook, $646,400 for Walsh, and $419,300 for Cowan.
The defendant argued that the blade met all FAA certification standards and that the engine exploded as a result of improper maintenance and the failure of a bolt.
In April 2011, the jury awarded $20 million in compensatory damages, including $4 million to each family. In a second phase on punitive damages, the jury awarded an additional $28 million, to be divided on a pro rata basis among the families.
The trial court later overturned the punitive damages, finding insufficient evidence that Doncasters had actual knowledge of the defect at the time the part was sold. A three-member panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, but in May 2013, a full panel of the court reversed and reinstated the punitive damages award.
The parties subsequently settled for a total of $52.5 million, including $10.5 million to each family.
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