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Dead Marines’ Families Win $4.9 Million Award

Orange County Register
By David Greenwald

The families of two Marines killed when their Cobra attack helicopter crashed in the Cleveland National Forest won $4.9 million Monday from the manufacturer of a fuel nozzle that failed and caused the engine to shut down.

“It was a real tragic situation,” said [another attorney] for the families.

The accident occurred Nov. 14, 1986, on a training flight from Camp Pendleton. Killed in the crash were pilots, Maj. Kenneth D. Johnson, 34, and Lt. Tom R. Riggs, 26.

Rescuers who found the wreckage inside Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park about three miles from the Lazy W Ranch said the helicopter appeared to have disintegrated on impact.

The downed chopper was discovered in a brushy canyon by firefighters responding to a blaze that began when the AH-1T Cobra gunship crashed.

[Brian Panish and the other attorney] alleged in the lawsuit that Pratt-Whitney, one of the world’s leading aircraft-engine manufacturers, knew that the fuel nozzle in the Cobra engine was defective but refused to recall the part.

“We contended that they were churning out these defective fuel nozzles and they knew about it,” [the other attorney] said. “There had been other accidents and other deaths, but they failed to notify anybody about the problem. They just sat on it.”

[The other attorney] said Orange County Superior Court Judge Jack Mandel entered a summary judgment against Pratt-Whitney when the manufacturer failed to turn over documents to lawyers for the family. A separate jury trial was held to determine the extent of the damages.

Jeff Davidson, who began representing Pratt-Whitney after Mandel entered default judgment, said the company will probably appeal.

“The way the nozzle was manufactured played no role in the crash,” Davidson said.

“The fuel nozzles here deteriorate over time, and gunk builds up inside them. That can be solved by regular cleaning and replacement,” Davidson said. “And that is exactly what Pratt-Whitney advised the military to do.”

Johnson’s family, which lives in the San Francisco Bay area, received the lions share of the damages – $4.4 million for his wife and two children. Riggs’ parents, living in Oregon, were awarded $500,000.

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