A San Diego jury has awarded more than $55 million in a California wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families of four U.S. Marines killed after their helicopter struck a utility tower at Camp Pendleton. According to a Sept. 3 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, jurors decided that San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), owners of the tower were negligent because they did not install safety devices such as lights or ball markers to prevent aviation accidents.
The four Marines who died in the helicopter crash were: Capt. Adam E. Miller, 29; 1st Lt. Michael S. Lawlor, 26; Staff Sgt. Lori A. Privette, 27; and Cpl. Joshua D. Harris, 21. The jury reportedly determined that SDG&E bore 56 percent responsibility for the fatal collision that occurred on Jan. 22, 2004, when two Marine helicopters were conducting training exercises at night.
I find it inexcusable that SDG&E knew about the hazard their utility tower posed to aircraft, especially helicopters, but didn’t follow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommendations to install safety devices so pilots can see the utility towers at night. Attorneys representing the Marines’ families said that the crash would not have happened if the Marines had been able to see the towers and that the utility company put profit ahead of safety by not fixing the problem.
Apart from compensatory damages, jurors also awarded about $10 million in punitive damages to each of the families. I applaud the jury for making a strong statement in this case by awarding punitive damages, which are usually awarded when a defendant’s conduct is found to be intentional, willful or malicious. Punitive damages are intended to punish or penalize the defendant and to discourage negligence in personal injury cases.
The money will not bring back a loved one, but for the victims’ families, it is a vindication and a sense of closure. More importantly, it sends a message to companies such as SDG&E that there is a price to pay if they don’t adhere to safety standards.