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Jury Awards $5 Million in Marine Deaths

Los Angeles Times
By George Frank and Matt Lait
Times Staff Writers

SANTA ANA – The families of two Marine Corps pilots who died in a helicopter crash were awarded a total of nearly $5 million in damages Monday in their suit claiming the engines were defective.

Maj. Kenneth D. Johnson, 34, of Fallbrook and 1st Lt. Thomas R. Riggs, 26 of La Canada Flintridge were killed Nov. 14, 1986, when their AH-1T Cobra crashed and caught fire near Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County.

The aviators were based at Camp Pendleton and were part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro. They were training when the accident occurred.

Attorney Jeff Davidson, who represented Pratt & Whitney of Canada, the manufacturer of the engines, said the award will be appealed.

Superior Court Judge Jack K. Mandel ruled without a trial in March that Pratt & Whitney, the world’s largest aircraft engine manufacturer, was responsible for the crash that killed the two Marines.

During a weeklong trial that ended Monday, a Superior Court jury only heard evidence about the extent of the damage the families of the two Marines suffered as a result of the helicopter crash. A lengthy trial on the complicated question of whether the contractor was liable because of a defective part was avoided by Mandel’s ruling.

In his March 30 ruling, Mandel chastised the manufacturer for what he called a lack of cooperation.

“For the period of no less than 16 months, Pratt & Whitney has persistently and willfully refused to respond properly to discovery requests,” Mandel ruled. “This course of conduct was designed to prevent the plaintiffs from preparing their case.”

He said that the defense contractor’s ignoring of court orders prompted at least 15 unnecessary court hearings. Because of Pratt & Whitney’s “deleterious” conduct, Mandel determined without a trial that the helicopter accident was caused by a “manufacturing defect” in the engine’s fuel nozzle.

Mandel further ruled that Pratt & Whitney knew of the defect before the crash occurred, “yet intentionally concealed the information from the United States military.”

“They were stonewalling us and the judge knew it.”

“We did a hell of a lot of digging.” He said a former employee of Pratt & Whitney provided a lot of information about the helicopter.

Mandel declined to comment on the case Monday, saying the decision would probably be appealed. The families could not be reached for comment.

Davidson said his firm began representing Pratt & Whitney only after the judge’s March ruling.

The alleged manufacturing defect in the engines occurred in nozzles that spray fuel into the jet engines, much like the fuel injectors on high performance automobile engines. If they are not working correctly, lawyers said, hot spots develop in the engines that cold cause them to rip apart, damaging the helicopter’s other engine.

The jury found that Johnson’s family suffered $2.1 million in economic damages. Additionally, the jury determined that his wife, Susan, should receive $1.3 million and his two children $500,000 each for non-economic damages.

Riggs’ mother and father were awarded $500,000 by the jury.

Marine officials said the Cobra, built by Bell Helicopter Textron, proved itself during the Persian Gulf War when it defended frontline Marines and patrolled near enemy lines. The aircraft, with its narrow 38-inch fuselage and stub wings that carry missile and rocket packs, is the Marine Corps’ primary attack helicopter.

The Cobras attached to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro are all stationed at Camp Pendleton, where they are used for practicing maneuvers with the ground troops.

Davidson said, “Thousands of these engines are flying and they are safe. They are very good engines.”

The crash that killed Johnson and Riggs happened in daylight. The aircraft slammed into a canyon in thick brush, causing a tree fire three miles east of the Lazy – W Ranch near San Juan Hot Springs.

A U.S. Forest Service crew discovered the downed helicopter while extinguishing the fire.

“I’ve asked around and no one knows of a higher verdict,” he said.

In 1988, the U. S. Supreme Court gave the defense industry a broad shield from liability, ruling that government contractors may not be sued for design defects on military equipment approved by the government.

Attorneys said the Cobra case is not covered under the ruling because the manufacturer produced an allegedly defective part contrary to design plans approved by the government.

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