Wrongful Death Case Over Military Plane Crash Lands in 11th Circuit

A U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet lands on the runway at the Osan U.S. Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, in 2017. (Hong Ki-won/Yonhap via AP)

ATLANTA (CN) — The widow of an F-16 pilot who died after his plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico asked an 11th Circuit panel Thursday to overturn a ruling in favor of the government contractor she says failed to properly maintain the aircraft.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Matthew LaCourse was piloting an F-16 fighter jet during a November 2014 training sortie when the plane crashed into the water, killing him.

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command Accident Investigation Board ruled that the crash occurred because LaCourse, who was a civilian employed by the Department of Defense at the time, became disoriented after performing a series of flight maneuvers and misjudged the position of the plane.

But LaCourse’s widow, Patricia LaCourse, disagreed.

She sued PAE Aviation Technical Services, a government contractor tasked with maintaining the plane, for wrongful death and claimed that the crash was caused by a malfunction in the plane’s hydraulic system.

During a hearing held via conference call Thursday morning, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit peppered attorneys on both sides with questions delving into the minutiae of Air Force rules for plane maintenance.

Arguing on behalf of LaCourse, attorney John Gagliano told the panel that his client’s husband died because PAE “did not comply with the Air Force’s reasonably precise specifications for the maintenance of [the F-16] aircraft.”

A Florida federal judge threw out LaCourse’s lawsuit in August 2019, ruling that she failed to show that PAE’s maintenance of the jet violated the Air Force’s standards and guidelines.

“[PAE] did not properly troubleshoot the 16 relevant malfunctions in this aircraft that occurred in the days before the crash,” Gagliano said Thursday, adding that the company failed to impound or test fly the jet as required by Air Force instructions.

Gagliano said the 16 malfunctions showed “a chronic problem” with the plane. According to the district court’s ruling, the plane experienced several problems with one or both of its hydraulic systems in the two months before the crash, which were addressed and corrected by PAE. The plane reportedly experienced two mechanical issues shortly before takeoff but passed its pre-flight checks.

Thursday’s panel raised questions about whether the Air Force’s rules required the aircraft to be impounded or if PAE was allowed to exercise its discretion in deciding whether to ground the plane for safety reasons.

Gagliano argued that even if PAE could use its discretion in deciding to impound the plane, it still did not conduct a “root cause investigation” into the nature of the plane’s malfunctions.

“The district court just accepted PAE’s representation that all of these 16 problems which kept popping up were addressed and corrected. They were not addressed and corrected; they were ongoing, continuous and systematic,” Gagliano said.

“The evidence shows that PAE invented its own procedures and went well outside the bounds of the Air Force’s instructions to do what it thought was the right thing to correct these problems,” the attorney added. “What it thought was the right thing is not the issue. It did not follow the specifications.”

But Michael Schofield of Clark Partington, an attorney representing PAE, argued Thursday that the absence of evidence in the case “is the death knell” for the lawsuit.

Schofield said the decision to impound a jet for safety reasons was made on a “permissive” rather than mandatory basis.

“There is no testimony that refutes the submissions by PAE that we met all applicable reasonably precise standards,” he said.

Thursday’s panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Kevin Newsom, R. Lanier Anderson III and Charles Wilson, appointed by Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively. The judges did not indicate when they will reach a decision in the case.

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