(CN) – An Indiana aviation board is not liable for the crash of a solo plane that killed the pilot and his 8-year-old daughter, the only passenger, because the father had deliberately flown the plane into his mother-in-law’s house, apparently enraged that his wife was divorcing him.
Eric Johnson began taking flight lessons in July 2006, just after his wife, Beth, petitioned to dissolve their marriage.
Around the same time, “Eric threatened Beth and held her at gunpoint for an entire night,” leading Beth to take out a restraining order, according to the court.
Though the couple split custody of their only child, Emily, under the dissolution decree, “Eric told Beth on several occasions that he would not permit her to take Emily away from him” after the divorce.
Eric took Emily to Cancun for a vacation in late February 2007 on the condition that he take her to school the following Monday, March 5. But the trip soured when Eric learned that Beth had spent the week in Florida with a new boyfriend.
Eric told a friend that he feared Beth and the other man would take Emily from him.
Then, instead of taking Emily to school on March 5, he took the 8-year-old to Grissom Airport where he had reserved a plane to fly.
That same day, he had also sent a $500 donation to a youth group, requesting that a brick be engraved “Emily and Eric Johnson 3-1-07.”
While in the air, Eric placed three calls to Beth’s cellphone. He called her a “bitch” and a “whore” and said he would see Beth and her boyfriend “in hell.”
Emily told her mother to come get her, and Beth went to the police to report a kidnapping.
Minutes later, witnesses saw the plane fly into a private house that turned out to be the home of Beth’s mother, Vivian Pace. Eric and Emily both died in the crash, which the National Transportation Safety Board ruled was the result of an apparent suicide.
Beth filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Eric’s flight instructor, Tony Newbold, as well as the commissioners of Lawrence County and the county board of aviation commissioners. She claimed that the defendants should not have allowed Eric, a student pilot, to fly solo.
But the trial court determined that Eric’s murder-suicide broke the chain of causation and released them of liability.
On appeal, Beth argued that Eric’s suicide was not an established fact and that the plane crash may have been a “tragic accident.”
The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the facts of the case establish that the crash was no accident.
“At some point during the conversation, Eric told Beth that she would never see Emily again,” Judge John Baker wrote for the court. “Just before the plane crashed into Pace’s house, two bystanders witnessed the airplane abruptly angle downward and throttle its engines toward the ground, without taking the normal steps to prepare for landing, such as deploying flaps, reducing speed and shallowing descent.”
“Eric crashed the plane into the house shortly thereafter,” he added. “As noted above, Pace’s residence was one of 18,500 houses in Lawrence County.”