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St. Louis Post-Dispatch - April 29, 2011

$48 Million Jury Verdict for Wrongful Death From Crash of DeHavilland Plane

Phillip O’Connor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

UNION • A Franklin County jury on Thursday night awarded $28 million in punitive damages against a Connecticut airplane parts manufacturer in connection with 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 child. A sixth victim was not part of the lawsuit.

The attorney for the families, Gary C. Robb, blamed the crash on a defective engine part made by Doncasters, Inc. The $48 million verdict is believed to be the third largest ever awarded in a Missouri airplane or helicopter crash.

“It was all an effort to sacrifice safety for profit,” Robb said.

The jury of seven women and five men listened to three weeks of evidence about the July 29, 2006 crash of the DeHavilland Twin Otter airplane. Testimony came from air crash investigators, metallurgists and aircraft design engineers.

Robb said his team presented evidence that Doncasters used a different alloy in a compressor turbine blade than called for by Pratt and Whitney Canada, the engine’s manufacturer. Robb said 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 jury learned that the eight people aboard the twin-engine plane knew it was going to crash and suffered 52 seconds of “pre-impact terror.”

Killed in the accident were:

  • Victoria Delacroix, 22, of London. A counselor at a Dittmer summer camp for disabled children, she was making her first jump. The other victims were all experienced skydivers.
  • Melissa Berridge, 38, of Maryland Heights. She spent her middle and high school years in O’Fallon, Ill, and was a staff member for Sen. Claire McCaskill’s election campaign.
  • Robert Cook, 22, of Laquey, Mo. He was a senior civil engineering student at the University of Missouri at Rolla and had completed 1,700 jumps.
  • Rob Walsh, 44, of University City. He was a freelance photographer and certified sky diving instructor who had survived a near-fatal accident in the mid-1990s. He had made more than 5,000 jumps.
  • Scott Cowan, 42, of Sullivan. Cowan, worked as a pilot for American Eagle Airlines. He was co-owner of Quantum Leap Skydiving and was piloting the plane when it crashed.
  • David Pasternoster, 34, of Claycomo, Mo., was not a party to the lawsuit.

The jury heard testimony that Cook used his body as a cushion to lessen the impact of a tandem first-time skydiver and that the woman survived the crash, has married and recently had a baby.

The jury awarded the punitive damages after a day and half of testimony to punish Doncasters for reckless conduct, Robb said.

“This company misled and manipulated the (Federal Aviation Administration) into obtaining approval of this aircraft engine part,” Robb said.

An FAA certification officer testified that Doncasters 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 part breaking.

Robb said the jury was incensed when after they had determined the part was defective a company official testified they planned to continue selling it.

“This company just doesn’t get it and that’s why this jury had to punish them,” Robb said.

In 1995, Robb, one of the nation’s leading air crash attorneys, obtained a $350 million verdict on behalf of a helicopter pilot who experienced an in-flight engine failure and a $70 million verdict on behalf of a 20-year-old woman who was a passenger on the flight. The crash occurred in 1993 when the woman was being airlifted to a Kansas City hospital after being injured in a traffic accident.

An attorney for Doncasters could not be reached immediately for comment.

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