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Families of Victims in Aspen Plane Crash Awarded $10.2 Million

Associated Press

July 2, 2003

LOS ANGELES – A Southern California charter jet company must pay $10.2 million to families of three people killed in the 2001 plane crash near the Aspen airport, a jury ruled Wednesday.

Burbank-based Avjet Corp. was ordered to pay Lyle and Laurence Witham $4.25 million each for the death of their daughter, 22-year-old Marissa Witham, a news employee at Fox affiliate KTTV.

The company must also pay $1.7 million to Aurora Garcia, whose grandsons Jose and Joseph Aguilar were also killed in the crash.

The eight-man, four-woman panel also found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to permit the two families to seek punitive damages against Avjet and the heirs of Robert Frisbie, who piloted the plane and also perished in the March 29, 2001, crash.

The jurors were to return to court Monday to hear evidence in the punitive phase of the trial.

Kathy Tinckert, a spokeswoman for [the Los Angeles law firm] which represented the plaintiffs, said she could not comment on the award because it was sealed after being read in open court.

Representatives of Avjet declined to comment.

Eighteen people were killed when the Gulfstream III jet from Southern California attempted to land at dusk in Aspen during a brief but intense snowstorm.

During the trial, Brian Panish, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said two planes ahead of the jet had tried the approach and turned around because visibility was bad.

“There was a reckless disregard for the safety of passengers,” he said.

Avjet attorney Martin Rose said a cockpit voice recorder showed the flight crew discussed a curfew for landing at the airport after sunset and determined they had enough time.

Even in clear weather, the airport is one of the nation’s most challenging for pilots because of its mountainous setting and the steep descent required to land.

Avjet admitted responsibility for pilot error before the trial, but Rose argued that $1 million each for the Withams and $1 million for Garcia were “reasonable” awards.

The Gulfstream was operated by Avjet and registered to Airborne Charter Inc., which is owned by the movie company Cinergi Pictures Entertainment Inc.

The plane was carrying 15 passengers to a birthday party and a weekend of skiing and snowboarding when it smashed into a Shale Bluffs hillside. A pilot, co-pilot and flight attendant were also aboard.

The company, which leases private jets to celebrities, dignitaries and corporate movers and shakers, has settled cases with some of the other crash victims’ survivors.

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