On October 25, 1999, the sports world was shocked with the news that golfing pro Payne Stewart had died in an airplane that had crashed near Mina, South Dakota. Payne had won 11 PGA tour events, including the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst on Father’s Day., during which he defeated Phil Mickelson by a single stroke. (Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh had also been top contenders in that match) Payne had always been a very popular golfer, and his fans especially loved his flamboyant dress on the links during the tournaments. When he accepted the trophy, he surprised both the media and the nationwide TV audience by saying “First of all, I have to give thanks to the Lord. If it weren’t for the faith that I have in Him, I wouldn’t have been able to have the faith that I had in myself on the golf course.”

Several years later, while Bettye and I were completing a tour of “The Ring of Kerry” as part of a self driving tour of Ireland, we saw a large bronze statue of Payne Stewart erected after his death by his Irish fans, who appreciated that during the weeks before winning the U S Open, he had practiced by playing most of the courses in Ireland.

At the time of Payne’s crash, I was nearing the end of a second career as an aircraft accident investigator. Since the plane that Payne was flying in was owned by, and the pilots were employed by a firm in nearby Sanford, Florida, I was not surprised to receive a call from the insurance company involved asking me to began an investigation of the maintenance records on the airplane. That call was superseded by a second call the following morning, informing me that the vice president of the insurance company was arriving later that morning to conduct the investigation himself. Since by that time, I already had a good idea as to what had caused the accident, I was not at all reluctant to just stay on the sidelines on this incident.

Payne and others from his team, had departed Orlando en route Dallas earlier on the day of the crash, as passengers in a LearJet chartered from SunJet Aviation, located at the Sanford airport. About an hour after take off, while over the Florida panhandle, the FAA Air Route Traffic Controller asked for assistance from the USAF to check out the LearJet, since the pilots were not responding to FAA traffic clearances. Two F-16 fighters were scrambled from Eglin AFB, and they soon reported that the LearJet’s canopy was iced over, which was a good indication that the pilots (and passengers) were incapacitated as a result of pressurization failure. Over the next 3+ hours, the plane continued on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed in South Dakota.

About six years later, opening arguments were made in circuit court in Orlando for the wrongful death lawsuit involving Payne Stewart. The plaintiffs were the family members of Payne and his associate, and the principal defendant was Lear Aircraft Corp. Also named as a defendant was SunJet Aviation, the now defunct aircraft maintenance company at Sanford that provided the pilots, the aircraft, and the maintenance on the LearJet.  Damages claimed included $200 million in expected lifetime earnings by Payne.

The Lear attorneys argued that with over 300 LearJet aircraft using the air conditioning pressurization valve , there was no history of malfunction of the valve or its attachment collar. Both of these positions were thoroughly developed in court during the weeks that followed.

To an outsider looking in, the interesting thing is that SunJet Aviation, who as noted above, provided the pilot, the aircraft, and the maintenance, was only a minor player in the plaintiff’s case. This, in spite of the consensus around Sanford that their management was suspect, and that their maintenance organization was short on leadership, experience,  and supervision.

Why, then would the plaintiff attorneys focus on Lear, a company with a good record for designing and producing excellent aircraft, and on a component with no history of malfunctions, rather than on SunJet, with its poor record of performance in the operating and maintenance areas? There are two components to the answer to this question.

First, SunJet was on a very thin edge financially even before the Payne Stewart accident, which then reduced their new business to almost zero and forced them into bankruptcy. Not much there from which to recover damages. Lear, on the other hand, presumably had deep pockets.

Secondly, is the convenience in this case to the plaintiffs of Florida’s Joint and Several Liability Law. In layman terms, what this means is that if the plaintiff attorneys could  show that SunJet might be responsible for a major portion of the accident, and that Lear had at least some responsibility, however small, for poor design or manufacture of the offending part, then viola!, Lear gets to pay most if not all of the damages awarded.

The all woman Orlando jury found no negligence on the part of LearJet, leaving only SunJet’s liability insurance policy on the table - a very small amount in view of the $220 million in damages claimed by the plaintiff families.

I wish that I could tell you that this story had a better ending, but sometimes life is like that!
Also, you will probably not be surprised to learn that SunJet , having bankrupted all of its debts and judgments, is back in full operation, in its same hangars, and same staff, but under a new company name.

Ty Dedman