Washington state's highest court found Thursday that an aircraft company was not liable for a plane crash that killed seven anti-narcotics agents for the Mexican government in 2004, a ruling that makes it unlikely their families will ever see compensation for their deaths.
The justices split 6-3 in favor of Twin Commander Aircraft LLC, saying federal law bars certain lawsuits stemming from crashes of planes that are more than 18 years old.
The two-propeller, seven-passenger Twin Commander 690C, manufactured in 1981, crashed when its rudder came apart over the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes on May 2, 2004, en route from Ciudad Juarez to Mexico City. On board were two federal pilots, Jesus Arciniega and Marcelino Gonzalez, and agents Juan Galindo, Pablo Lozada, Cesar Maya, Ulises Desposorio and Marinela Elizalde.
They were part of a special operations team with the Mexican attorney general's office assigned to carry out drug trafficking surveillance flights in the Chihuahua mountains. The five agents were returning to the capital after a two-week assignment in Juarez, where the pilots were based.
The aircraft was built by Gulfstream, but Twin Commander later acquired the certificate for that entire line of planes and is required to provide support for it, including reporting any failures, defects or malfunctions concerning aircraft safety to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
The company's president did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.
The victims' families argued that they should be allowed to pursue their wrongful death claims in court under an exception to the federal law limiting the liability of aircraft manufacturers when old planes crash. Although Twin Commander told the FAA about rudder failures on 690-series planes in an emergency landing in Texas in 2002 and in a fatal crash in Georgia in 2003, the families said it did not tell the agency that it was concerned that the problem might extend to other mishaps, including a 1992 crash in Denver that was attributed to heavy turbulence.
Acting on the 2002 and 2003 incidents, the FAA issued a service bulletin calling for rudders on 690-series planes to be inspected. The families argued that if the company had reported the possible connection between those accidents and earlier ones, the FAA likely would have called for the planes to be grounded.
Instead, Mexican authorities inspected the plane twice in 2003, and then returned it to service.
Gene Hagood, an Alvin, Texas-based lawyer for the families, said they would consider asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, but acknowledged the long odds the court would take it.
At the crash site, about a mile-and-a-half hike from the nearest dirt road, the families constructed a one-room, white, brick-and-mortar shrine and decorated it with photos of the victims and an altar, said Hagood, who has visited it a few times. Last he heard, the families were still making pilgrimages there every weekend.
"To a person, to a family, they were devastated by this crash," he said.
The state Supreme Court's ruling overturned a lower court's decision that would have allowed the case to proceed to trial. Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the majority that the families had uncovered no proof that the company knowingly misrepresented, concealed or withheld information in its reports to the FAA, as would be required for their case to succeed.
Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the minority that that standard was wrong. A reasonable inference could be drawn that Twin Commander knowingly failed to report important information, she said, and therefore the lawsuit should not be dismissed before a trial could establish whether the company was liable.
Twin Commander was formerly based in the Seattle area, but the company was sold in 2008 and its headquarters are now in Creedmoor, N.C.