Judges Clear Way for Wrongful Death Suit Against Blackwater Unit

October 11, 2007

A three-judge panel in Florida says a lawsuit can proceed against the operator of a plane that crashed in Afghanistan in 2004, killing three Army soldiers.

The contractor operating the plane, Presidential Airways Inc., is the aviation subsidiary of Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater USA. It was based in Melbourne before moving to North Carolina. Three Blackwater USA employees were also killed in the crash.

Presidential had argued in an appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta that the lawsuit should be thrown out because it was immune from prosecution because it was operating under a government contract. The company also claimed that the lawsuit should not go forward because it would involve one branch of government reviewing another branch’s decision making.

The three judges rejected those claims, upholding a lower court’s ruling. Presidential could still ask for a full hearing before all the judges on the appeals court.

An e-mail message sent to Washington attorney Michael P. Socarras, who represents Presidential Airways Inc., was not immediately returned.

Killed when the plane crashed into a mountain near the Iran border were Lt. Col. Mike McMahon of West Hartford, Conn.; Chief Warrant Officer Travis W. Grogan of Moore, Okla.; and Spc. Harley D. Miller of Spokane, Wash.

Attorney Robert Spohrer said he was “gratified by the court’s opinion.” He said that the crew was “sightseeing in the mountains” and “joyriding” and the crash was “tragic and preventable.”

The families of the three soldiers had claimed in a wrongful death lawsuit that Presidential “committed numerous egregious violations” of federal air safety regulations.

The weather was good, there was nothing wrong with the aircraft and there was no enemy fire when the plane crashed.

According to the original lawsuit, the pilots were newly deployed to the region and unfamiliar with the route. The pilots failed to file a flight plan and strayed from the normal air route between two bases. Rescue efforts were delayed because the company failed to use the electronic location transmitter. Miller survived the crash but died of injuries before rescuers arrived two days later.

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