Los Angeles Times
September 4, 2008
By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO -- A jury Wednesday awarded $55.6 million to the families of four Marines killed in a 2004 helicopter crash at Camp Pendleton.
The four died when their helicopter, a UH-1N known as a Huey, crashed into a 130-foot-tall utility tower at the Marine Corps base.
The families filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against San Diego Gas & Electric Co., alleging that the company was negligent for not installing safety lights on the tower in rugged Talega Canyon.
The jury's decision included $15.2 million in compensatory damages and $40.4 million in punitive damages. SDG&E said in a statement that it would appeal the judgment.
Since the crash, the company has installed lights, said Todd Macaluso, the lawyer for the families.
"We feel justice has finally been done," Macaluso said. "At the end of the day, we made things safer for other Marines."
Capt. Adam Miller, 1st Lt. Michael Lawlor, Staff Sgt. Lori Privette and Cpl. Joshua Harris were killed in the crash. All Iraq veterans, they were part of a helicopter squadron attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. They were practicing late-night, low-level flying when the crash occurred.
The $15.2 million was based on lost income and loss of companionship for the Marines' families. The $40.4 million was based on the jury's belief that SDG&E acted with malice in not providing lighting.
Of the $15.2 million, $2.2 million was for loss of income. Under the jury's decision, SDG&E is responsible for the full amount. Of the remaining $13 million of the $15.2 million, the jury found the company responsible for 56% or $7.28 million. The remaining amount was ruled the responsibility of parties who were not part of the lawsuit, including the pilot.
SDG&E is responsible for the entire $40.4 million in punitive damages.
Macaluso argued that the utility was aware of the dangers. The company had a policy of putting lights only on towers taller than 200 feet, according to testimony.
In its statement, SDG&E said that "we respectfully disagree with the jury's verdict. But we realize that, regardless of the outcome of this litigation, there can be no winners."
The company said the power line had been on the base for 25 years and that SDG&E would have installed lights if the Marine Corps had asked.
During the three-week trial, lawyers for the utility claimed that the crash was the result of errors by the crew, not lack of lighting. The jury decided that the company bore the majority of responsibility for the crash, although the panel also put some responsibility on the pilot.
The Huey and a Cobra helicopter crew were training for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf region. The Cobra landed safely. The pilots were wearing night-vision goggles.