Judge sets July date for Comair trial

Claim for punitive damages to be heard

jhewlett@herald-leader.comApril 20, 2010 

A jury trial on punitive damages in a case pitting the family of a victim of the August 2006 crash of Comair Flight 5191 against the airline has been scheduled for July 19 in U.S. District Court in Lexington.

U.S. Senior Judge Karl S. Forester set the trial date in an order issued Thursday.

In December, Jamie Hebert, the widow of Flight 5191 passenger Bryan Keith Woodward, and her two daughters were awarded $7.1 million in compensatory damages from Comair. The family's attorney said afterward that the family also would seek punitive damages against Comair for its alleged gross negligence that caused the crash.

Flight 5191 crashed after taking off from the wrong runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, a general-aviation runway deemed too short for large commercial jets. Forty-nine of the 50 people on board died. The National Transportation Safety Board said the pilots' failure to notice that they were on the wrong runway was the main cause of the accident.

Forester established a detailed timetable for attorneys in the case to file information with the court — including witness and exhibit lists — in preparation for the trial on punitive damages. The judge said the parties in the suit are to conduct a "good-faith settlement conference" no later than June 15, and if a settlement is reached, they are to "promptly notify the court." Forester scheduled a pretrial conference for June 22. The judge said that the court was requiring strict compliance with the terms of the order and that failure to comply would result in sanctions.

Woodward's family is the only one of the families of the 47 passengers who died that did not reach an out-of-court settlement. Most of the lawsuits filed by crash victims' families were settled in August 2008, just before they were scheduled for trial. The settlements, which were confidential, did not include punitive damages, lawyers for the plaintiffs have said.

David Rapoport, the attorney for Jamie Hebert and her daughters, said he was appreciative that a date for a trial on punitive damages has been set.

"We are considering what we will argue now (including amounts) and will not make final decisions about our arguments until the trial," Rapoport said via e-mail.

Comair spokeswoman Christine Wever said Monday, "As we have been from the beginning, we remain committed to doing what is reasonable and appropriate for the victim's family."

The $7.1 million awarded to Woodward's family included $5 million to the two daughters for loss of parental consortium.

Comair asked for a new trial or for the court to lower the amounts awarded for the daughters, saying they were excessive. The airline asked that daughter Mattie Kay Hebert, for whom the jury awarded $3 million, receive no more than $600,000. The airline wanted daughter Lauren Madison Hebert, who was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages, to receive no more than $200,000.

Forester denied Comair's motion earlier this month.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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