Kansas City
Over $1 Billion in Verdicts and Recoveries
Barnett v. Turbomeca S.A.
JOE LAMBE Staff Writer
Kansas City Star

Citing new U.S. Supreme Court standards, a Missouri appeals court on Tuesday slashed $89 million from the damages awarded to the families of two persons killed in the 1993 crash of a Life Flight helicopter.

Although the appeals court found the actions of French helicopter manufacturer Turbomeca S. A . "unquestionably reprehensible," the court also found that two Jackson County juries went too far.

Jurors in 1995 recommended that the company should pay $420 million because it refused to recall a defective engine part that caused the crash north of Kansas City.

The ruling Tuesday reduced the total award in both cases to $59 million.

The decision angered one of the jurors, who questioned why they sacrificed a month of their lives to hear and decide the case.

"They ignored our verdict," said David Babcock, a jury foreman in one of the cases. He said the jury wanted the large award to punish the company and to force recall of helicopters still flying with the defective engine part.

"That's not enough to punish the company - they got away with murder," Babcock said.

In one case a jury awarded $350 million in actual and punitive damages to the Atchison, Kan., family of James Barnett Jr. He was pilot of the air ambulance when it lost power and crashed into a DeKalb County cornfield May 27, 1993.

In 1995, a Jackson County judge cut the $350 million Barnett verdict to $77.5 million. On Tuesday, the appeals court reduced it to $30 million.

In the second case, a jury awarded $70 million in actual and punitive damages to the family of Sherry Letz. The Bethany, Mo., woman was being flown to St. Luke's hospital after a car crash.

Circuit Judge Lee E. Wells refused to reduce that verdict. But on Tuesday the appeals court cut it to a total of $29 million.

The appeals court ruled that the matter is concluded if both families accept the specified lower amounts within 15 days. If not, it ordered retrials just on the amount of damages.

Douglas N. Ghertner, attorney for Turbomeca, said the company was still considering whether to appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Gary C. Robb, attorney for both families said they had not decided whether to accept the $59 million. They were gratified, Robb said, that the appeals judges upheld them on the facts.

"The families hope these unanimous appellate decisions will get the attention of all foreign manufacturers who knowingly export dangerous products in the United States" he said. "If they do it and get caught. They will pay dearly."

Lawyers said Judges are especially reducing such awards since a U.S. Supreme Court case this summer set tougher standards for punitive damages.

Michael Manners, President-elect of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said Tuesday's rulings are among the first major state responses to the U.S. Supreme Court decision. The nation's high court ruled BMW had to pay only $50,000 in damages instead of $2 million for not telling a car buyer his car paint had been damaged and retouched.

The new standards require judges to consider in part how reprehensible the conduct was. The
Turbomeca verdicts were high to start with because of that, Manners said, and remain high for the state even after the appeals court action.

"If you don't have punitive damages in cases like this," Manners said, "it penalizes companies who work to put out safe products."

In its ruling, the appeals court recapped the evidence: Tubomeca knew the defective engine part could destroy engines in 1986 and told only the French military.

The company had a replacement part by 1991 but did not recall the engines because that would cost $48 million and hurt sales. Instead, it replaced the part at customer expense at routine maintenance after every 2,000 hours of engine use. In 1988, amid the crisis, it changed the maintenance requirement from 2,000 hours to 2,500 hours.

The appeals court noted that the Life Flight helicopter had 2,435 hours of engine time. It also noted that the part had destroyed engines or caused crashes in about 20 aircraft and that the company had not reported many of them to aviation authorities.

"The reprehensibility of Turbomeca's conduct is unparalleled...," wrote appeals Judge Harold L. Lowenstein, "unquestionably reprehensible."

The company showed "complete indifference to or a conscious disregard of the safety of others " appeals judges wrote, and so rates punitive damages.

Of the $30 million award remaining for the Barnett family, $26.5 million is punitive damages. The same amount of punitive damages makes up the bulk of the $29 million remaining for the Letz family.

"The company always seems to be motivated by cutting costs, saving money and increasing sales, Lowenstein wrote, "all at the expense of the unlucky owners. "

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Personal injury is an area of law that pertains to the injury of an individual. Both physical and emotional injuries fall into this branch of tort law. A personal injury lawyer is generally involved in cases where an injury has occurred due to the negligence of another party.

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