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Jet crash lawsuit seeks to prevent another tragedy

Sign On San Diego

By Gretel C. Kovach

July 29, 2010

FEDERAL COURT — Don Yoon’s family perished in an inferno of jet fuel when a F/A-18D Hornet crashed on their University City home. A year and eight months later, the former grocer remains emotionally overwhelmed by the deaths of his wife, two baby daughters and mother-in-law and is unable to work, his lawyers said.

But his resolve to prevent such a tragedy from befalling another San Diego family motivated him to sue the United States and the Boeing Co. Wednesday in San Diego federal court, his lawyers said.

Relatives of the four who died obviously “suffered a devastating loss, and certainly anyone would agree they deserve to be fully compensated for that loss,” said Kevin Boyle, of the Los Angeles law firm Panish Shea & Boyle. The firm, which specializes in aviation litigation, represents Yoon along with Santa Monica attorney Raymond Feldman.

“Equally important, they want to be sure that this doesn’t happen again to any other San Diego family.”

The complaint argues that the government violated many of its own policies and procedures for maintaining and operating the aircraft and responding to a flight emergency. It also alleges that the Boeing jet “had a history of warnings and system failures” known to the government and the manufacturer, including defects in the fuel systems.

Yoon publicly forgave the Marine pilot whose disabled jet killed his family. The pilot in training had launched from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln the morning of Dec. 8, 2008, when “it was known that there were problems with the plane’s fuel systems,” Yoon’s lawyers said.

When one engine shut down, the pilot of the Hornet jet, in consultation with ground crews, headed over the heavily populated University City area toward Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

When the second engine failed, the pilot ejected and the jet crashed into the ground, destroying two homes and damaging three others. The pilot ejected on a flight path “known to the United States to be a public safety hazard for approximately 30 years,” the lawsuit alleges.

Yoon’s family was “burned alive,” the complaint states, based on the coroner’s report.

Youngmi Lee Yoon, a 36-year-old registered nurse who worked in a convalescent hospital; her toddler Grace Yoon, age 15 months, and newborn Rachel Yoon died in the crash, along with Lee Yoon’s mother, Seokim Kim, 59, who was visiting from South Korea to help care for the new baby.

A spokesman for Boeing, Philip Carder, said, “As this is a matter of litigation, we have no information to share at this time.”

The Department of Justice, which handles lawsuits against the government, will have 60 days to file a response after the agency has been formally served with the lawsuit. It could take as long as two years for the lawsuit to be resolved.

“Since it was just filed, we would have to review the complaint to make a determination as to how we would ultimately respond,” said Charles Miller, a department spokesman.

Yoon’s lawyers received a letter Monday from the Navy Office of the Judge Advocate General, which had been negotiating with the crash victims, rejecting the last of the Yoon family’s administrative claims for wrongful death and personal injury.

The amount of their rejected administrative claim with the Navy is confidential, Boyle said, and the amount in damages in the lawsuit is not specified. “We’re looking for whatever amount is full and fair compensation for having to go through what these two families went through,” he said.

The Navy has resolved 24 claims from the crash for more than $870,000; 10 claims remain pending for approximately $14.4 million, said Jennifer Zeldis, a spokeswoman for the Navy Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington, D.C.

Ron Belanger, 68, a retired Navy pilot who lives several houses down from the crash site, said he respects and supports Yoon for filing the lawsuit, after exhausting attempts to settle directly with the military.

“We don’t want a plane that is in distress to fly over our neighborhood,” he said. “It is too dangerous if they have a crash.”

After admitting that a chain of errors led to the crash, Marine officials said last year that they had instituted numerous changes. “We reviewed every in-flight emergency procedure,” 1st Lt. Gregory Wolf, a former Miramar spokesman, had said.

A new house is being framed on the lot where the Yoon family once leased their home. Yoon still lives in the San Diego area. He bears no ill will toward the military over the event, Boyle said, but he “has not been able to move on.”

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