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$5-Million State Judgment in Marine Pilots’ Death Upheld : Courts: Appeal panel in Santa Ana agrees that giant aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney was at fault in the 1986 helicopter crash.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appeals court has upheld a nearly $5-million judgment against the world’s largest aircraft engine manufacturer, which was sued by the families of two Marine Corps pilots who died in a 1986 helicopter crash.

In an unanimous opinion issued Wednesday, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Pratt & Whitney of Canada should pay the award, plus interest, to the families of Maj. Kenneth D. Johnson, 34, of Fallbrook and 1st Lt. Thomas R. Riggs, 26, of La Canada-Flintridge.

The two servicemen, who were based at Camp Pendleton and were part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, were killed Nov. 14, 1986 when their AH-1T Cobra crashed during a training flight and caught fire near the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County.

The pilots’ families sued Pratt & Whitney, which made the engine for the aircraft, alleging that the company had installed a defective fuel nozzle in the helicopter.

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Attorney Brian J. Panish, who represented the Johnson and Riggs families, said Thursday his clients were pleased that the justices upheld the award, but still are concerned that the military has other helicopters with defective Pratt & Whitney parts.

“We believe that there are a lot of others out there right now,” Panish said.

Attorneys for Pratt & Whitney did not return calls to their offices Thursday.

The trial judge had determined that Pratt & Whitney’s attorneys had stonewalled the families’ attorney and withheld pertinent documentation as the case was being prepared for trial, according to the appellate court opinion. The company ignored at least 50 court orders, the justices noted.

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In 1992, Orange County Superior Court Judge Jack K. Mandel ruled without a trial that the company was responsible for the fatal crash. He ordered that a trial be held solely to determine the monetary damages suffered by families of the dead Marines.

In his ruling, Mandel said the defense contractor knew of the defect and “intentionally concealed the information from the United States military.” Following a weeklong trial, the jury awarded the families a total of $4.9 million.

Attorneys for Pratt & Whitney appealed the award and the judge’s decision, claiming both were legally flawed. But the three-justice panel rejected their arguments and ruled that both the award and Mandel’s decision were appropriate.

Because the award was upheld, state law requires that Pratt & Whitney pay prejudgment interest on an earlier settlement offer and post-judgment interest on the judgment, which was awarded Aug. 11, 1992. The total award is currently near $8 million, attorneys said.

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