Friday, February 25, 2005
City Not Responsible for Air Show Disaster at Its Airport, C.A. Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The city of Livermore bears no responsibility for a fatal helicopter crash that occurred during an air show at the municipal airport, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Four overturned an Alameda Superior Court judge’s ruling in favor of Ellen Dixon, whose husband was killed during a five-minute scenic ride at the Livermore air show in 1995, and other family members. Dixon, who was herself injured in the crash, won a $6.172 million judgment against the city after settling with other parties.
The opinion was filed Feb. 10 and certified Wednesday for publication.
Dixon sued numerous defendants, including the city, the company that managed the air show, the company that supplied the helicopter, and the pilot. She presented evidence that the crash was caused by a lack of fuel, that the pilot was inexperienced in handling the particular type of aircraft, and that the crash occurred over difficult terrain.
Livermore has been holding the air show at its airport since 1969. The 1995 show, like those of the previous 10 years, was managed by Wings for Charity, Inc., a nonprofit company created by the city specifically to operate the show.
The jury found pilot James Crist and Tri-Valley Helicopters, Inc., which supplied the aircraft, responsible for the crash, attributing 60 percent of the fault to the pilot. It deadlocked on the liability of Wings and the city, and found the other defendants not liable.
Damages were set at $11.009 million.
Wings subsequently settled for the limits of its insurance—“which wasn’t very much,” plaintiffs’ attorney Terry O’Reilly of San Mateo told the MetNews—and Crist and Tri-Valley settled as well. The city, as the sole remaining defendant, and the plaintiffs agreed to a non-jury retrial.
Following the second trial, the judge held that the city’s relationship with Wings was such as to make the city vicariously liable for the operator’s negligence, and that Wings was guilty of several omissions, including failure to oversee the fueling practices, failure oversee the landing site, not obtaining Federal Aviation Administration approval for the helicopter ride program, insufficiently evaluating the qualifications of the pilot, and failing to ensure that the ride was flown at a high enough altitude over terrain on which the aircraft could be safely landed.
But Justice Maria P. Rivera, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that the city was not liable because Wings had engaged in no actionable misconduct.
The jurist explained that it was the pilot, not Wings, that was responsible for fueling the plane; that there was no evidence of a safer alternative route for the flight, and that Wings could not be held responsible for any deficiency in the pilot’s training.
“[T]he issue here is not whether Crist’s employer was negligent in hiring him (indeed, the jury in the first trial found that Crist’s employer...was not negligent); the issue is whether it was negligent for Wings not to check—and reject—a pilot who had been approved by the FAA,” Rivera wrote. “We see no basis to conclude Wings was negligent for failing to second-guess the FAA’s judgment on whether the pilots were qualified.”
O’Reilly, the plaintiffs’ attorney, expressed outrage at the decision and said he would seek review in the California Supreme Court.
“Eyebrows should be raised all over the country on this,” he said. “[The Court of Appeal] found that a private company running this thing for profit had no duty to the public.”
The court, he added, “read part of the judge’s findings of fact and discarded all the stuff they didn’t like,” including Crist’s testimony that he had only three hours of experience on the particular type of helicopter he was flying that day.
“You can’t fly passengers when you’re still trying to figure out what the controls are,” he said. “It was a complete mom-and-pop operation....If [the city] had exercised its responsibility to inspect, it would have shut this operation down in a minute.”
The case is Dixon v. City of Livermore, 05 S.O.S. 1057.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company