Man says military jet crash destroyed his life

AP News
Posted: Dec 12, 2011 7:23 PM
Man says military jet crash destroyed his life

Lawyers for an extended family that lost four members when a military jet crashed into their San Diego home in 2008 said Monday they will be seeking millions of dollars for the accident that the Marine Corps acknowledged was caused by a string of errors.

Attorney Kevin Boyle told The Associated Press outside the federal courthouse that the Yoon and Lee families turned to the court system after the Justice Department in private negotiations offered "insulting" amounts to compensate for the deaths of two children, their mother and grandmother.

U.S. District Judge Jeffery Miller will have the final say on the issue at the end of the two-day trial, which began Monday.

"The government has offered pennies on the dollar compared to what a jury would give," Boyle said.

Boyle would not specify yet how much the families want nor state the amount offered so far by the federal government.

Don Yoon lost his 36-year-old wife, Youngmi Lee Yoon; his 15-month-old daughter, Grace; his 2-month-old daughter, Rachel; and his 59-year-old mother-in-law, Seokim Kim Lee, who was visiting from Korea to help her eldest daughter take care of their children.

Yoon and his father-in-law are plaintiffs in the case. Their lawyers have filed court documents pointing out other cases in which families have received tens of millions of dollars from the government for the wrongful deaths of loved ones.

Sanghyun Lee took the stand Monday, testifying that his life was destroyed the day he got the call from Yoon's mother, who told him "the whole family died."

"I lost everything," said Lee, a cattle rancher who has been unable to work in the three years since the crash. "I cannot do anything now."

Asked if he and his wife of 37 years had plans, the soft-spoken man raised his voice and stared straight at the government attorneys and a Marine Corps counsel: "I did but you as a Navy took all my dreams away."

Department of Justice attorney Bruce Ross told the federal judge the government is not seeking a "discount" on the tragedy as alleged by the family's attorneys but rather wants the amount to be fair.

"There's no question here that the eligible heirs are entitled to a just and reasonable compensation," Ross said after offering his condolences to the family, many of whom flew in from Korea to testify at the trial.

The Marine Corps has said the plane suffered a mechanical failure but a series of bad decisions led the pilot _ a student _ to bypass a potentially safe landing at a coastal Navy base after his engine failed on Dec. 8, 2008.

The pilot ejected and told investigators he screamed in horror as he watched the jet plow into the San Diego neighborhood, incinerating two homes.

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Government attorneys are questioning how close Lee was to his daughter, pointing out that he had not visited her in four years in the United States and did not go to her wedding. They also doubt the plaintiffs' calculations on the economic loss.

The government has put the economic loss at $955,348 and has not revealed its amount for the non-economic damage. Lawyers for the family say Youngmi Lee's future income and her work at home would have been worth more than $2 million. She worked at a San Diego convalescent home but was trained as a nurse and planned to get a job in her field after the legal U.S. resident mastered English.

Justice Department attorneys raised doubts her salary would have doubled in two years as claimed by the family.

The government also is asking for receipts or other proof of property lost when the home burned to the ground.

The family's attorneys said Mr. Yoon was left with only a cardboard box of old photos rescued by firefighters. Yoon is expected to take the stand Tuesday.

The military disciplined 13 members of the Marines and the Navy for the errors. Low oil pressure killed the jet's first engine, and the second died when fuel stopped flowing from the tank.