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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch - May 7, 2013

Appeals Court Affirms $48 Million Jury Award in Plane Crash Case

By Jennifer Mann
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
5/07/2013

ST. LOUIS • The Missouri Court of Appeals has restored $28 million in punitive damages to families of four sky divers and a pilot killed July 29, 2006, when their plane crashed seconds after taking off from Sullivan Regional Airport.

A Franklin County jury decided upon the $28 million award after a three-week trial in April 2011, as well as $20 million in compensatory damages — all to be split evenly among the families. Relatives of a sixth person killed in the crash did not participate in the suit.

The $48 million verdict against defendant Doncasters Inc. was at the time believed to be the third-largest ever awarded in a Missouri airplane or helicopter crash.

But on a motion from Doncasters’ attorneys, the trial judge stripped the punitive damages from the total award, ruling there was no evidence the airplane parts manufacturer had “actual knowledge” of a defect or showed “complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others” when it sold the engine part blamed in the crash.

That ruling was upheld by a three-member panel of the appeals court earlier this year.

But in a 9-3 vote Tuesday, the full court reinstated the punitive damages award and affirmed the rest of a verdict that Doncasters had challenged on nine different points. The court also denied Doncasters’ request for a new trial.

Gary Robb, the attorney for the families, said the ruling shows that “in Missouri, jury verdicts are a meaningful thing.”

“It’s our clients’ great hope that this verdict will induce (Doncasters) to stop selling this dangerous part so that other families will not experience what they did,” he added. “They’ll never have their children back, but they feel that justice has been served.”

Attorneys for Doncasters, a Connecticut-based company, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Killed in the crash of the DeHavilland Twin Otter airplane were:

  • Victoria Delacroix, 22, of London, a counselor at a Dittmer summer camp for children with disabilities.
  • Melissa Berridge, 38, of Maryland Heights, who was a staff member for Sen. Claire McCaskill’s election campaign.
  • Robert Cook, 22, of Laquey, Mo., a senior civil engineering student at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
  • Rob Walsh, 44, of University City, a freelance photographer and certified sky diving instructor who had survived a serious accident in the mid-1990s.
  • Scott Cowan, 42, of Sullivan, who was co-owner of Quantum Leap Skydiving and piloting the plane when it crashed.
  • David Pasternoster, 34, of Claycomo, Mo., whose family was not a party to the lawsuit.

Two others survived, including a first-time sky diver who was spared when Cook’s body lessened the impact.

At trial, Robb’s 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, and hid documents showing the part in question failed performance tests.

On appeal, Doncasters’ attorneys challenged the qualifications of the plaintiffs’ experts and argued the jury was allowed to hear things it shouldn’t have.

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