A Jackson County judge on Thursday approved a $27.5 million settlement for families of the pilot and five sky divers killed in a Grain Valley plane crash. Engine manufacturer Teledyne Continental Motors of Mobile, Ala., is to divide the money equally among the six families. The company admitted no fault in the settlement.
Circuit Judge J.D. Williamson approved the settlement after hearing from members of four families. Lawyers said it will become final soon after members of the other two families testify. The checks are to be paid by May 11.
Lawyers said the $27.5 million was among the nation's largest pretrial settlements in the crash of a small plane.
Plaintiff attorney Gary C. Robb said a separate contractual agreement with the company, involving engine overhaul manuals, was more important to his clients than the money. Teledyne pledged to revise the manuals.
"From the beginning our clients wanted to remedy the engine problem," Robb said. "They have succeeded."
The company denies any engine problem.
Robb, who represented the four families at the Thursday hearing, said the March 21, 1998, crash happened because badly designed oil transfer tubes failed and starved the engine of oil.
Smoke and flames billowed from the Cessna engine as the pilot tried to land at Grain Valley Airport. The plane clipped a tree, cart-wheeled to the ground and burst into flames. All aboard died.
Robb said his review of the company records found 14 other cases of engine failure caused by such oil tube failures. The records only go back to the mid-1980s, though the company made engines with the faulty tubes from 1945 to 1995, Robb said. The engines went into small planes made by many different companies, Robb said.
"Who knows how many other engine failures and deaths resulted because of this," Robb said after the hearing.
Robert W. Cotter, attorney for the company, disagreed with Robb. He said the oil tubes did not cause engine failures. He admitted no liability.
Separate from the legal settlement, the four families received letters from Cotter Thursday. In them, the company pledged to change its printed and Web site overhaul manuals to tell mechanics and owners to inspect the oil transfer tubes.
Cotter said he would not comment on letters that were separate from the settlement. Robb said the pledge is part of a legally binding contract.
Members of the four families said they never would have agreed to the settlement without the letters.
Judi Rudder of Oskaloosa, Kan., widow of sky diver Marion Rudder, said the families quickly agreed on two things - a required warning and an even split of any settlement.
"Our whole mission on this was to keep people safe," she said. "We knew together we could make a bigger difference, and we wanted to be fair."
Brad Buckley of Independence, the son of sky diver Kenney Buckley, said he lost a father and did not want others to lose loved ones.
Other members of the Greater Kansas City Skydiving Club who died were Eric Rueff, John Schuman and Julie Douglass. The pilot, David Snyder, also died in the crash. The Snyder and Douglass families are to appear at later hearings to finalize the settlement.
Belinda Schuman of Lawrence, widow of John Schuman, said the families want to make it clear that a plane crash - not a skydiving accident - killed their loved ones.
Her husband loved skydiving and had made 2,300 jumps, she said. "We got married on the anniversary day of his first jump; he said he'd always remember that date."
Another defendant, Jewell Aircraft Inc. of Holly Springs, Miss., settled the case previously for $1 million, which also was equally divided among the six families. The company, which admitted no wrongdoing, did an engine overhaul on the Cessna 10 years ago.
Robb said he probably would drop the case against several other defendants that include Whuffo III, the owner of the plane; Freeflight Aviation Inc., an aircraft maintenance company; and White Industries, a company that sold the engine.
His investigation, Robb said, also answered the key question of why the sky divers did not jump out of the plane.
When the pilot first radioed at 3,000 feet that he heard an engine noise, he called off the jump and started to land, Robb said, but by the time the engine burst into flames it was too low for anyone to jump.
Judi Rudder said the question of why no one jumped had troubled her.
"They just didn't know it was going to be that bad," she said. "They thought they could get down safely."