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Judge Limits Use of Medical Evidence in Air Crash Case

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge Thursday refused to grant a mistrial in the case over responsibility for the 1986 Cerritos mid-air collision, ruling that evidence may be admitted that indicates that the pilot of the small plane that crashed into an Aeromexico DC-9 may have suffered a heart attack before impact.

In making the decision, U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon dismissed arguments by government attorneys, who are defending the Federal Aviation Administration in the accident that killed 82 people, that the evidence was speculative and prejudiced the jury.

“It seems to me that there is--albeit not very strong--evidence to offset any kind of summary judgment (sought by government attorneys),” Kenyon said.

Suggestions that William K. Kramer, 53, was somehow disabled just before the Aug. 31, 1986, collision have come up before. The National Transportation Safety Board in its final report on the accident acknowledged that an autopsy showed there were major obstructions of blood vessels in Kramer’s heart.

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The report also said there were indications of severe arteriosclerosis. But it concluded that it was unlikely that Kramer suffered a heart attack.

Franklin Brummett, the attorney representing Kramer’s four surviving children, brought up the heart attack possibility last week in the second day of opening arguments to explain how Kramer might have ended up in a traffic control area restricted to jetliners.

“What was it that caused him to stray into this restricted area?” Brummett asked the jury. “The answer is he was disabled or dead. There is no better evidence to explain what happened to Mr. Kramer.”

Heart Attack Evidence

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It was at that point that Justice Department attorney Steven J. Riegel asked for a mistrial, contending that the argument had never been mentioned in pretrial papers and that there was no evidence to prove that Kramer suffered a heart attack.

In Thursday’s ruling, the judge barred Brummett and other attorneys representing the Kramer children from using the medical evidence. But he said only a coalition of attorneys representing the victims’ survivors could use it to refute government claims that Kramer was largely to blame for the accident by being in the restricted airspace.

The case--expected to last three months--involves more than 50 lawsuits over responsibility for the air crash.

Kenyon restricted the evidence’s use because Brummett had failed to address the idea of survivability. Could Kramer, for example, have aroused himself from the supposed heart attack? And could the small plane have been landed by the other two non-pilot passengers, Kramer’s wife and daughter, despite the collision?

“No one knows,” the judge declared. “No one can say.”

The battery of attorneys--representing such clients as Aeromexico, the surviving relatives of the jetliner’s crew and Kramer’s estate--were mostly noncommittal on the effect of Thursday’s ruling.

“I’m not sure it’ll make any real difference,” said Aeromexico attorney Frank Silane.

The jury is expected to return Monday to hear the rest of the opening arguments.

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