Jury Awards $48 Million in Skydiving Plane Crash

By JIM SALTER | May 3, 2011

A jury has awarded $48 million to relatives of five people killed when a skydiving plane crashed shortly after takeoff from a rural Missouri airport in 2006.

The jury in Union, Mo., on Thursday sided against London-based Doncasters Inc., ordering the company to pay $4 million to each family, and another $28 million in punitive damages to be split among the families.

“Lives will be saved because of what this jury did,” said Gary Robb, the attorney for the victims’ families. “Aviation safety will be improved because manufacturers will not cut corners, because if they do they will be caught.”

An attorney for Doncasters did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

The right engine of a DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter plane blew up shortly after takeoff on July 29, 2006, at the Sullivan airport, about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis. Six people were killed, though relatives of one of the victims were not part of the lawsuit.

Among those testifying 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, who was compliance director for McCaskill’s Senate campaign staff.

Also killed in the crash were Victoria Delacroix, 22, of London; Robert Cook, 22, of Rolla, Mo.; Rob Walsh, 44, of St. Louis; Scott Cowan, 42, of St. Louis; and David Aternoster, 35, of Claycomo, Mo. Two others on board were badly injured.

Relatives of Aternoster were not part of the lawsuit.

Cowan and his brother, Jim, co-owned Quantum Leap Skydiving Inc. of Sullivan, and was piloting the plane, which crashed within about 10 feet of a house. No one on the ground was injured.

Robb said testimony indicated that Doncasters used a different alloy material than called for by the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney Canada. Jurors heard testimony from crash investigators, metallurgists and aircraft design engineers. Evidence was presented suggesting that eight other airplane engine failures were believed to be due to the same faulty part made by Doncasters, Robb said.

“The family more than anything wants them to take this defective part off the market,” Robb said.

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