Don Yoon wiped his eyes and struggled to speak on the witness stand as his lawyers showed him a handful of family photos _ the only items firefighters were able to salvage from his home after a U.S. military jet crashed into it, setting it ablaze. His 36-year-old wife, two baby daughters and mother-in-law all perished.
Yoon shared his pain during the second day of a trial to determine how much the U.S. government should award his extended family to compensate for the Dec. 8, 2008, accident that the Marine Corps has acknowledged was caused by multiple mistakes. Closing arguments were scheduled Wednesday.
Yoon burst into tears as soon as he took the witness stand and was asked to state Tuesday's date. It was exactly three years since he buried his wife in the same casket with his baby daughters.
"All we wanted was to grow old and raise babies," said Yoon, a Korean immigrant who came to California at the age of 18 to pursue a better life. "And now everything is gone. I know I'm going to be with them when my time comes. That's the only thing I'm looking forward to."
The case went to court after talks broke down over the undisclosed amount being sought by the family.
The situation is rare because the Marine Corps has said it was responsible. But the Department of Justice is disputing the amount of money that should be awarded. In most wrongful death cases, the government also disputes claims that it was responsible, legal experts say.
"There are very few if any cases like this," said attorney Kevin Boyle, who is representing the families.
Boyle said there was no doubt the military was at fault. Recordings of conversations between the Marine pilot and the military ground crews show the pilot was advised to make a potentially safer landing at a nearby Navy base over open water rather than head toward Miramar Air Station over the populated city.
Government attorneys declined to comment. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller will have the final say on compensation for the family.
California law does not allow victims in such cases to seek money for grief, suffering or punitive damages. Instead, both sides in the case face the difficult task of quantifying not only the future incomes of those who died _ based in part on their life expectancies _ but the worth of the love and compassion the deceased had for surviving family members.
Making it more challenging, lawyers say, is the fact that this case involves a Korean immigrant family stretching across two continents. Family members have had to testify mostly through an interpreter and explain the cultural nuances in describing their relationships.
Yoon described hugging his wife, Youngmi, and telling her he loved her that morning before heading to work at his sister's store. Yoon broke down sobbing, and his attorney Brian Panish withdrew his question asking him to recall how he heard the tragic news that day.
The government has put economic losses at less than $1 million and not given a figure for non-economic losses. The family's lawyers say Youngmi Lee's earnings would have topped $2 million had she lived.
In court filings, Panish pointed out cases in which he has won multi-million dollar awards for families who have lost loved ones in accidents caused by companies or government entities.
He also pointed out a case in which San Diego Gas & Electric Co. awarded $55.6 million to the heirs of four U.S. Marines who died in a 2004 accident when their helicopters crashed into power lines at Camp Pendleton.
During this week's trial, Panish has used testimony of the family and photographs to depict a close-knit family originating from a small Korean farming community, where Youngmi's mother, Seokim Kim Lee, was the pillar, taking care of those in her village and her four children, along with her husband, a cattle farmer.
In video clips taken in Korea, their baby daughter, Grace, is shown playing with Seokim Kim Lee and her husband in a living room filled with their large family.
One by one, the three remaining adult Lee children have testified how their mother's death shattered their lives, leaving them feeling lost.
Jun Hwa Lee, 34, said his mother was No. 1 on his phone's speed dial so he could talk to her quickly about anything. He recalled returning to his village almost every weekend after he moved away for a job and always found his home filled with flowers and food. His father now eats out and is so depressed he spends his days wandering the home in a daze, no longer tending to his cattle, he said.
"My mom was the most important person in my life," he said. "She was the person I loved most, and still is."
Department of Justice attorneys offered their condolences to the family but have raised doubts about how close they were and how much they depended on each other. On Monday, they questioned Yoon's father-in-law, Sanghyun Lee, about why he had not visited his eldest daughter in the four years she was in the United States and why he missed her wedding in Las Vegas.
He said the couple planned to hold a bigger wedding in Korea with the entire family.