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When Tom Meyer crash-landed a rented Piper Cherokee into the garage of a suburban Illinois home, he and his five passengers mostly escaped with minor injuries. Only one passenger, 29-year-old business manager Suzanne Henbest, suffered injuries serious enough to recover a large amount. A Chicago jury awarded her $6.8 million, but counsel for the plaintiff said the toughest litigation may lie ahead: wringing payment out of Meyer’s insurance companies. Meyer rented the single-engine six-seater from Northwest Flyers Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., for a weekend getaway to Eagle River, Wis. During the return leg of the trip, the engine began sputtering. Meyer switched to his second main fuel tank but, 45 minutes later, the engine began to sputter again. When the plane was within eight minutes of its destination, Meyer and his front-seat passenger saw gauges indicating that 12 gallons of fuel remained. By the time they realized they were running on empty, an emergency landing was necessary. Meyer positioned the plane in an attempt to land on a suburban street but turned too sharply, crashing into a garage. Henbest broke multiple bones in her legs and wrists and suffered a closed-head trauma that resulted in cognitive deficits, including short- and long-term memory loss that ended her career as a retail store manager. Henbest sued Meyer and Northwest. She alleged that Northwest failed to maintain the plane properly, allowing faulty gauges to mislead Meyer. Against Meyer, she alleged that he didn’t act quickly enough to effect an emergency landing. His decision to continue on to Schaumburg doomed the flight, she claimed. At trial, a pro se Meyer was a virtual default, showing up to observe opening and closing arguments and testifying when called by the plaintiff, but doing little else to defend himself. On May 24, the 12-person jury returned its verdict, finding Northwest Flyers 6 percent liable and Meyer 94 percent negligent. According to Northwest attorney Alan Farkas, his client was helped by findings of the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration indicating that there was no evidence that the fuel gauges were not working. Burke said he anticipates extensive insurance litigation will be necessary for collection. Plaintiff’s attorneys: Richard F. Burke Jr. and Brian Thomas Nash, Clifford Law Offices, Chicago. Defense attorneys: Thomas Meyer, pro se; Alan L. Farkas and Joshua Johnson, Madsen, Farkas & Powen, Chicago.

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