Opening arguments began Tuesday in the first of five lawsuits to go to trial in the wake of an accident at the Thomson-McDuffie County Airport where five people died after an executive jet clipped a utility poll near the end of the runway.
The crash killed vascular surgeon Steven Roth, nurse anesthetist Lisa Volpitto, ultrasound technicians Heidi McCorkle and Tiffany Porter, and Kim Davidson, a secretary. All worked for The Vein Guys, a vascular practice with offices in Atlanta, Augusta and Nashville. The crash occurred as they returned from Nashville. The pilot and co-pilot of the Hawker Beechcraft jet were the only survivors.
The current trial involves claims by McCorkle’s estate and two boys, ages 11 and 15.
The original suit named multiple defendants, including the Georgia Power Co., the company that owned the aircraft, the city and county, and the estate of Roth, whose practice owned the aircraft.
The only defendant left standing at trial was Milliken & Co., a global textile and chemical company based in South Carolina that owned a plant near the end of runway where a power pole was erected in 1989.
In arguments before Fulton County State Court Judge Jay Roth, that pole and an easement the company granted to the airport years earlier agreeing not to obstruct the airspace of planes landing or taking off are key to the plaintiffs’ claims Milliken caused the crash that killed McCorkle, 28.
Moraitakis & Kushel partner Nicholas Moraitakis told the jury that the 1972 agreement stipulated that no “protruding obstructions” would be erected in the easement.
Milliken began planning an expansion of its Thomson plant in 1988, which included the construction of a new electrical substation, and new power poles and guy wires.
Engineers for Milliken and Georgia Power agreed that no obstructions taller than 50 feet would be erected in the easement, and a memo to that effect was written, Moraitakis said.
“Here’s the interesting thing,” Moraitakis said. “There were no minutes, no followup, no confirmation … mum was the word.”
A form submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration showed the new structure in the easement, but failed to include the pole, which was 72 feet high, Moraitakis said.
On the night of the crash, Richard Trammell—a commercial pilot who was familiar with the airport—experienced a brake problem as he was landing and was attempting to pull back up for another attempt when he struck the unlighted power pole at about 58 feet above the ground, Moraitakis said.
Moraitakis is handling the case with firm colleague Martha Turner; William Stone and James Stone of the Stone Law Group; Joseph Brown of Mobile, Alabama’s Cunningham Bounds; and John Clark of Macon’s Clark & Smith.
Rising to defend Milliken, Pete DeMahy of Coral Gables’ DeMahy, Labrador, Drake, Victor, Rojas & Cabeza noted the plaintiffs played the “blame game” with numerous other parties before the case finally got to trial.
“Now we’re the only ones left,” he said.
DeMahy pointed out that Georgia Power erected the pole, and said the utility was and is the only entity authorized to alter it.
The pole is still in place today, the only difference is a “little flashing red light on top” added after the crash, he said.
DeMahy said there was never any agreement to a 50-foot limit in the easement, and that even if there were, “it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.”
Expert testimony will indicate that the plane’s wing first clipped a tree and a guy wire before hitting the pole, he said. The aircraft was only about 43 feet off the ground within seconds of the crash.
The evidence indicates that Trammell, who had only had about five hours’ sleep in the previous 38 hours, miscalculated his approach speed and should have circled the airport instead of trying another tactic when it became clear he was in trouble, DeMahy said.
The pole had been there for 24 years with no one complaining, DeMahy said.
“Did the pole get built? Yes, Georgia Power built it. Did we sign the agreement? Yes, we did,” said DeMahy, representing Milliken with firm partner Orlando Cabeza, along with Stevan Miller and Lisa Richardson of Drew Eckl & Farnham, and Laurie Webb Daniel of Holland & Knight.
Conceding that the crash was a horrible tragedy for McCorkle and her family, DeMahey said, “I can’t compete with sympathy because I have it myself. But I can compete with facts and I can compete with evidence.”
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.