Posted on Jul 27, 2007
Jury awards $54 million to 2 injured in plane crash
By JAY STAPLETON
DAYTONA BEACH -- It was eight years ago this week a student pilot and his instructor took off from the Ormond Beach Municipal Airport in darkness, then trouble struck beyond their control.
As the plane climbed July 24, 1999, the carburetor failed because of a mechanical defect, and the four-cylinder engine in the Cessna 150L died. Mark Godfrey, a 23-year-old learning to fly, and instructor Nicholas Grace fell to earth. Both men suffered debilitating head, face and brain injuries when the plane slammed into a tree.
"The engine quit cold, forcing them to make an emergency landing," said Arthur Alan Wolk, a Philadelphia attorney who represented Grace and Godfrey. "Horrible injuries were suffered . . . brain injuries resulting in depression, anxiety, inability to remember, inability to concentrate."
On Thursday, a jury found the manufacturers of the plane's engine, Teledyne, and carburetor, Precision Airmotive, should pay the men a combined $54.5 million, making the verdict the second highest in Volusia County history. The carburetor maker knew of problems with its screws and needle valves, attorneys for the men said.
The jury considered evidence showing similar problems with the Precision Airmotive carburetor had been reported for 40 years, said Terence R. Perkins, a Daytona Beach lawyer who worked on the case for the plaintiffs.
"Nonetheless, they didn't take the right steps," he said of the companies. The companies never warned the Federal Aviation Administration or pilots that carburetor failures were causing planes to crash, according to court records.
Attorneys for one manufacturer pointed to Ormond Beach Aviation, saying the company didn't change the plane's oil enough, Wolk said. But no damage to the engine was found relating to oil.
The plaintiffs determined two screws holding the carburetor together came loose, causing it to fail and the plane to crash.
"The Precision and Teledyne defendants were also aware of numerous conditions . . .," the lawsuit complaint said, "that resulted in carburetor failure, and resultant engine malfunction."
At the end of a weeklong trial, the jury found that Washington state-based Precision Airmotive was 70 percent responsible for the $53 million it awarded in compensatory damages for the men's losses. Such damages include payment for lost wages and medical expenses.
The jury also awarded $1.5 million in punitive damages against the company.
"They found that Precision Airmotive was so wanton and devoid of care that they should be liable for punitive damages," Wolk said. "It was a very significant verdict."
Teledyne was found to be liable for 30 percent of the compensatory damages. Ormond Beach Aviation, Grace's employer at the time, was found not responsible for the accident.
Grace, now a postal worker from Palm Coast, was working as an instructor when the crash happened, on his 33rd birthday. Now 41, he declined to comment Thursday.
"It's been a hard eight years," his wife said.
Godfrey is from Leicester, England. His injuries included fractured bones in his face.
Wolk said the jury's verdict on punitive damages sends a message to aircraft component manufacturers to fix problems they know are likely to cause serious injury or death. "This isn't a car," he said. "It's an airplane. If you don't fix an airplane, somebody is going to get killed."
The compensatory damages were "recognition of how horribly these young men were injured."
Thursday's verdict is the second highest in the county; the largest jury award here was granted in a sex-abuse case.
In April, a Volusia County jury agreed 75-year-old Glenn Lamar Swain should be held liable for years of sexual abuse his daughter suffered. That jury awarded his daughter $110 million. The News-Journal does not usually identify victims of sexual assault but in a previous News-Journal story, Swain's daughter said she wanted to be identified.
Volusia County's top five jury awards in civil cases:
2007 $110 million
2007 $54.5 million
2007 $18.8 million *
1995 $15.3 million
2005 $13.7 million
*The only case that was not negligence.
SOURCE: Volusia County clerk of court