An appeals court has restored $28 million in punitive damages to the relatives of five people who were killed when a skydiving plane crashed shortly after taking off from a rural Missouri airport.
Relatives of five of the victims filed suit against Doncasters Inc. Evidence presented at trial showed that the London-based company made a defective part that caused the right engine of the DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter to blow up shortly after takeoff July 29, 2006. The family of the sixth victim of the crash at the Sullivan airport, about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis, did not join the lawsuit.
In 2011, a Franklin County jury ordered Doncasters to pay $20 million in compensatory damages and $28 million in punitive damages. The trial judge removed the punitive damages, though, saying there was no evidence that the company knew of a defect or showed indifference or “conscious disregard for the safety of others” when it sold the faulty part. A three-judge Missouri Court of Appeals panel upheld the judge's ruling earlier this year.
But on Tuesday, the full appeals court voted 9-3 to restore the punitive damages. The appeals court also denied Doncasters’ request for a new trial.
“We hope this sends a clear message to any parts manufacturer: Don’t cut corners for safety because you will be caught and when you are, it will cost you,” said Gary Robb, the Kansas City, Mo.-based attorney for the families.
Messages seeking comment from an attorney for Doncasters were not returned.
Among those testifying at the trial was U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who gave video testimony about the impact of the death of 38-year-old Melissa Berridge of St. Louis. Berridge was compliance director for McCaskill’s Senate campaign staff.
Also killed were Victoria Delacroix, 22, of London; Robert Cook, 22, of Rolla; Rob Walsh, 44, of St. Louis; Scott Cowan, 42, of St. Louis; and David Paternoster, 34, of Claycomo.
Relatives of Paternoster were not part of the lawsuit. Two others on the plane survived, including a first-time skydiver. Testimony showed she survived in part because Cook used his body to protect her.
Cowan and his brother, Jim, co-owned Quantum Leap Skydiving Inc. of Sullivan. Scott Cowan was piloting the plane.
Robb said evidence at trial showed that the part that broke, causing the engine to fail, was a compressor turbine blade made by Doncasters. Robb said the part was defective because it used a different alloy material and coating than called for by the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney Canada.