After a two-week trial, it took a jury less than three hours to decide that textile and chemical giant Milliken & Co. bore no liability for a plane crash near Thomson-McDuffie Airport in which a corporate jet hit a power pole on the company’s property, killing five people.
The trial was the first to address the claims against Milliken, with five more cases pending in Fulton County State Court, including suits by the families of the deceased and from the pilot and co-pilot, who survived.
Lawyers for the family and estate of Heidi McCorkle, a 28-year-old mother who worked for the doctor whose practice owned the plane, argued that Milliken had agreed to limit any obstructions in the easement to 50 feet when it was granted in 1989.
The pole was 72 feet high, and the plaintiffs said the plane hit it at about 58 or 59 feet.
But Milliken’s lawyers denied any agreement existed and said the pilot made several mistakes that night, including attempting to take back off after briefly landing. The Hawker Beechcraft Premier was “doomed” regardless of the pole, which remains in place today just past the runway, they said.
Lead defense lawyer Pete DeMahy of Coral Gables’ DeMahy, Labrador, Drake, Victor, Rojas & Cabeza, said he did not speak to the jurors Friday evening after they found for his client.
“This is speculation, but I think there were three points” leading to verdict, he said.
“First, the pilot was—in my opinion—fatigued and made numerous errors that put him in a position where the flight was doomed and was never going to be able to elevate sufficiently,” he said. “Second, given the point of impact, the height of the pole was irrelevant, and I think the evidence was sufficient to prove that.”
“Thirdly, I think it was impressive for the jury to hear that those poles had been there for 24 years before the accident and that the [Federal Aviation Administration] had been doing flyovers every two years and had discussed obstructions when they felt like they needed to,” DeMahy said.
Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Nicholas Moraitakis noted there were multiple defendants when the case was filed, including Georgia Power Co., the city and county that own the airport, the deceased doctor’s practice, the company that owned the plane, an engineering firm Milliken had hired and pilot Richard Trammell, among others.
The other parties settled or were dismissed over the the course of the litigation, but Judge Jay Roth allowed several of them to be placed on the verdict form for apportionment purposes. Moraitakis said the plaintiffs’ team made certain the jury knew there were other parties who had been blamed for the crash.
“We knew going in that trying this case against the last remaining defendant presented a special challenge, and the defense did a good job of pointing that out. My hat’s off to them,” said Moraitakis, who tried the case with Moraitakis & Kushel 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.
Moraitakis did not speak to the jurors either, “but at the end of the day, I think the jury felt that causation was difficult because of the other parties, particularly the pilot.”
Moraitakis conceded during closing arguments that Trammell had some blame and asked the jury to allocate a tiny portion of liability to him, if any.
He suggested that the jury award more than $18 million in damages.
The jury never got to the apportionment issue after siding with the defense, the lawyers said.
As to whether and how the verdict will impact the pending cases, neither DeMahy nor Moraitakis would speculate.
“I really don’t know,” said DeMahy. “All the lawyers involved in these cases representing the plaintiffs are very competent. I’m sure they’ll study this case and learn from it. They’re not the kind of people who are just going to go away.”
Moraitakis noted that some of the other cases involve different parties, and he is not involved in all of them.
DeMahy said the verdict was welcome but lamented the tragedy it stemmed from.
“This one of those victories where you’re glad at the result, but it’s still a terrible tragedy,” he said.