A Philadelphia jury awarded nearly $89 million in damages Tuesday afternoon in a personal injury and products liability case involving a 1999 plane crash in which four people died and another suffered serious injuries.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Arthur A. Wolk of The Wolk Law Firm, said the jury awarded $24.7 million in compensatory damages in Pridgen v. Avco Corp. and found that the defendant's conduct was malicious, wanton, willful or oppressive, allowing for a subsequent punitive damages phase of the trial.
After Common Pleas Judge Patricia A. McInerney gave the jury a stipulated net worth of defendant Avco Corp. of about $640 million, the jury went back to deliberations and returned later Tuesday afternoon with an award of $64 million in punitive damages, according to the verdict sheet.
The combined award of $88.7 million is the largest out of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in the last five years, according to a review of the past five editions of Legal Intelligencer affiliate PaLAW magazine, which tracks the largest verdicts and settlements in the state.
Wolk said both sides stipulated to the net worth so that the defense couldn't contest on appeal that the jury was given insufficient economic information. The sole defendant at trial, a division of Avco known as Lycoming Engines, retained its ability to challenge the punitive damages on constitutional grounds, he said.
Wolk and fellow attorneys Bradley Stoll and Cynthia Devers of his firm represented the crash survivor, who was 15 years old at the time, and three of those who died. The estate of the fourth victim did not bring a claim, he said.
Wolk argued the carburetor on the engine died at takeoff, causing power loss that resulted in an unsuccessful emergency landing. The pilot crashed not far from the airport where he was trying to return for the landing.
Defense attorney James Robinson of Cozen O'Connor said he argued there was nothing wrong with the carburetor and that it was pilot error that caused the crash. He argued the pilot overloaded the plane, causing it to stall.
"Lycoming is disappointed with the verdict, particularly given that the National Transportation Safety Board, in its investigation of the accident, found that the accident and the regrettable loss of life had absolutely nothing to do with Lycoming's engine," Robinson said. "Lycoming Engines will take the necessary legal steps for review in the trial court and pursue an appeal to overturn an unwarranted verdict."
The $24.7 million in compensatory damages was split in varying amounts among the four plaintiffs and the $64 million in punitive damages was awarded in a lump sum to the plaintiffs, according to the verdict sheet.
Filed in 2001, the case has gone back and forth to the state Superior and Supreme courts twice. Wolk said many of the issues on appeal dealt with the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, which bars claims against an aircraft or component manufacturer more than 18 years from when the product was made. An exception to that rule, Wolk said, was whether the manufacturer willfully and materially misrepresents information to the Federal Aviation Administration.
On the first question of the verdict sheet Tuesday, the 11-member jury found that exception to the statute of limitations applied in this case. Once that question was answered, the jury moved on to the state law issues of strict liability and negligence.
The jury came back 10-1 on the case, finding the product defective, Lycoming Engines negligent and the conduct meritorious of punitive damages, according to the verdict sheet. It found pilot Lendon Pridgen was not negligent and found Lycoming Engines was 100 percent negligent.
Wolk said the case could have been settled for "a fraction of the verdict." He said the offer prior to and during the two-week trial was $75,000.
In talking to the jurors after the trial, Wolk said, the biggest take away was that they said they didn't find Lycoming Engines' vice president of engineering and its piloting expert credible.
The jury awarded Karen Pridgen, as representative of Lendon Pridgen's estate, $5 million for her wrongful death claim and $2.3 million for her survival action. As representative of Anthony Cipparone's estate, Karen Pridgen was awarded $5 million for the wrongful death claim and $3.8 million for the survival action. As representative of the estate of Dan Diggen, Denise Diggen was awarded $5 million for the wrongful death action and $600,000 for the survival action. Plaintiff Tyler Johnson was awarded $3 million in non-economic damages, according to the verdict sheet.
Wolk said the surviving victim, Johnson, is now fine except for the fact that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder "in the worst way." Wolk said he plans to file a motion for 7 1/2 years' worth of delay damages.
The accident happened shortly after takeoff from Youngstown-Elser Metro Airport in North Lima, Ohio. The plane had initially taken off from Oshkosh, Wis., and refueled in Ohio. Upon takeoff from Ohio, the plane was headed to Pottstown, Pa., when it crashed, according to court papers.
Robinson was assisted in the case by Cozen O'Connor attorney Sara Anderson Frey.
Ryan Bolger contributed to this report.