2005: Newsmakers - Learjet not liable in Stewart crash
Orange County jurors rejected claims June 8 that a faulty valve adapter caused Payne Stewart’s Learjet 35 to rapidly lose air pressure and eventually crash into a South Dakota field in October 1999. The families of Stewart and Robert Fraley, however, say the civil trial helped put an end to nearly six years of painful uncertainty.
“Tracey and Dixie (Fraley) were not willing to accept the report of the (National Transportation and Safety Board). Not willing to accept that as the end of the story,” said Greg McNeill, an attorney for the Stewart and Fraley families. “I think there is a lot of closure.”
In their verdict, jurors found that there was no negligence in the design or manufacture of the plane.
Jurors declined to comment after the verdict.
Attorneys for the families of Stewart and Fraley claimed a corroded and cracked adapter caused an outflow valve to pull away from the plane’s frame
on Oct. 25, 1999, leaving a 3-inch breach in the cabin that incapacitated the crew and passengers high above the Florida Panhandle.
Learjet, however, said the aircraft was not maintained properly by Sunjet Aviation, the Florida-based operator of the plane that went out of business in July 2000. Learjet also contended the pilot had not received proper training on how to deal with a rapid decompression.
While the NTSB report on the accident did find a problem with the “flow-control valve,” it stopped short of identifying the part as the cause of the crash. Nor did the report mention the adapter.
After sifting through nearly five weeks of often emotional testimony, the jury agreed with Learjet’s argument that the same lightweight, aluminum valve adapter has functioned in more than 300 other Learjet aircraft without incident.
“While this is certainly a tragedy, we’re glad the court agrees with us that this tragedy was not . . . caused by Learjet,” said Leo Knaapen, a spokesman for Learjet’s parent company, Bombardier Aerospace of Quebec.
A host of expert witnesses and a litany of highly technical testimony likely overwhelmed the jury, McNeill said.
“It was a technical case and we never doubted that the metallurgy would be tough for anyone to grasp,” McNeill said.
Attorneys for the Stewart and Fraley families estimated economic damages of approximately $110 million. Noneconomic damages, which include pain and suffering restitution, could have pushed the compensation to nearly $200 million.
“Maybe they got confused and maybe they just weren’t willing to impose a judgment for those kinds of dollars,” McNeill said. “The money was never the issue in this case. They were never concerned with the money.”
After the verdict – which took the jury less than six hours to render – Tracey Stewart hugged
her children, Chelsea and Aaron, and Dixie Fraley before leaving the court.
Stewart and Fraley declined to talk to the media, but issued a statement through their attorneys: “We pursued the cause of this crash to allow the truth to be told. This is for all people who fly. This is for everyone who depends on a manufacturer to make air travel safe.”
Despite the jury’s finding, friends and family of Stewart – who won the last of his three major titles four months before the crash at the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. – found solace in the explanation of the crash.
“The most important thing to them is they wanted to know what happened,” McNeill said. “Once we determined what happened they wanted it discussed in a public forum.”