SDG&E found negligent in helicopter crash

A jury today found SDG&E negligent in a 2004 helicopter crash that killed four Marines on Camp Pendleton because the utility failed to light a tower that the chopper struck at nighttime.

Jurors found the utility’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the deaths of the Marines and awarded more than $15 million in economic and non-economic damages to the families of 22-year-old Cpl. Joshua Harris, 27-year-old First Lt. Michael S. Lawler, 29-year-old Capt. Adam Miller and 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Lori Anne Privette, who were based at Miramar.

The jury awarded $2.1 million in non-economic damages to the families of Miller, Harris and Privette; $2.2 million in economic damages and $4.5 million in non-economic damages to Lawler’s wife; and $2.1 million in non-economic damages to his parents.

Jurors also found that former SDG&E President Ed Guiles and executive.

Ali Yari acted with malice in their capacity as officers of the utility.

This afternoon, jurors were to begin considering how much -- if any -- punitive damages to award the plaintiffs.

SDG&E did not immediately react to the verdict.

In assessing blame, the jury found SDG&E 56 percent negligent for the accident; the pilots of the UH-1N Huey helicopter in which the victims were riding 22 percent negligent; the pilots of a Cobra helicopter which was hovering over the victims’ chopper 8 percent negligent; and assessed 14 percent blame to others not named in the lawsuit.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Todd Macaluso, told jurors in his opening statement that the utility was negligent for failing to light towers supporting power lines in the Talega Canyon area of the military base, where the fatal crash occurred.

Macaluso said SDG&E was on notice that the unlit towers and unmarked power lines were a hazard, but did nothing about it.

The Marines were on a training mission in the northwest portion of Camp Pendleton about 9 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2004, when the UH-1N Huey struck a tower, severing one of co-pilot Lawlor’s legs and ejecting him, and sending the helicopter crashing to the ground, killing all on board.

The Marines had finished their training mission with the Cobra helicopter and were leaving the area when the crash occurred, Macaluso said.

Larry Davis, the attorney for SDG&E, blamed the accident and loss of life on the actions and conduct of the pilots and crew of the Huey and Cobra aircraft.

Davis told the jury that the pilot of the Cobra helicopter failed in his responsibility to keep visual contact with the lower-flying chopper.

It was the obligation of the pilot of the higher-flying aircraft to challenge the flight path of the lower-flying helicopter, Davis argued.

Pilots using night-vision goggles -- which the pilots in question did -- need to fly at slower speeds in order to pick up obstacles in their flight path, Davis said.

He said the Huey helicopter was traveling more than 100 mph when it struck the 35-foot tower at the 123-foot level.

The pilots of the Huey and the Cobra had a previously scheduled training mission canceled the night of the accident and decided to do other training so they could make use of available time, Davis told the jury.

Davis said SDG&E has been cooperating with the Marine Corps regarding the lighting of power line towers on base.

Macaluso said SDG&E recently installed more than 70 lights in Talega Canyon. A spokeswoman for the utility said it was just happenstance that the lights were installed during the current trial.

The families of the victims filed suit in August 2006.