A Comair widow who received a multimillion award against the airline will seek punitive damages against the company for its alleged gross negligence that caused the plane to crash in 2006 at Blue Grass Airport, her attorney says.
Jamie Hebert, 40, the widow of Comair Flight 5191 passenger Bryan Keith Woodward, and her family see the fight against the airline as "a matter of principle," David Rapoport, a Chicago lawyer who represents Hebert, said Tuesday.
"This family felt strongly and feels strongly that the justice in this case should be public and not private," Rapoport said.
That trial could begin next year, he said.
On Monday, an eight-member jury in U.S. District Court awarded Hebert and her two daughters $7.1 million in a wrongful-death lawsuit Hebert filed against Comair.
The jury awarded Hebert $1.35 million for the loss of Woodward's power to earn money; $750,000 for Woodward's physical pain and mental suffering; and $5 million in damages to Hebert's two daughters, Mattie-Kay Hebert and Lauren Hebert, who were minors at the time of the crash.
"It is our hope and only satisfaction that our mother will continue to right these wrongs and manage this legal matter the way my father insisted we live life — the right way," Lauren Hebert said.
Comair spokeswoman Christine Wever said in a statement that Comair has been committed to treating the families of the victims fairly and respectfully since the accident.
"We appreciate the thoughtful consideration of the jury, and we hope this trial is one more step in the families' healing process," the statement said.
Comair attorneys declined to comment on the verdict.
Comair 5191 crashed Aug. 27, 2006, after taking off from the wrong runway at Lexington's airport. The general-aviation strip was too short for commercial jets. The National Transportation Safety Board said the pilots' failure to notice that they were on the wrong runway was the primary cause of the accident.
Hebert is the only family member of the 47 passengers killed in the crash who did not settle.
The vast majority of the Comair Flight 5191 lawsuits were settled in August 2008, shortly before they were scheduled to go to trial. The settlements were confidential, but none included punitive damages, lawyers for the plaintiffs have said.
In October, U.S. District Judge Karl Forester ruled that Hebert could sue for loss of companionship, which was one of the first such claims to go forward in the state. Forester's ruling followed a state Supreme Court decision that allowed someone to sue for loss of physical and emotional companionship — called loss of consortium — after a spouse's death. That had not previously been allowed under Kentucky law.
Hebert ultimately declined to pursue loss of consortium damages after Comair questioned the validity of her marriage to Woodward, Rapoport said.
Rapoport said there is an order in Louisiana, where Hebert and Woodward lived, that identifies their relationship as a valid marriage, "but the airline wanted to make a contest of that."
"It's a battle we chose not to fight," Rapoport said.
Woodward and Hebert lived near Lafayette, La., where he was an electrician who often worked on offshore oil rigs. He was on his way to Atlanta for a connecting flight when the plane crashed.
Another major point of contention during the trial was whether Woodward experienced conscious pain and suffering. Comair attorneys said the impact of the crash was so great that death was instant for the passengers, Rapoport said.
"We did not believe that was true," he said.
Lexington lawyer Joe C. Savage, who represented three families who settled in confidential agreements with Comair in 2008, said he wasn't surprised by the award for Woodward's pain and suffering, despite Comair's argument that the passengers died instantaneously.
"Knowing you're going to crash and die, that was worth a substantial award, and we took that into account with the settlement," Savage said. "I thought a jury would agree, so I'm not surprised the jury awarded for pain and suffering."
As for so many other people settling, Savage said facts differ greatly from case to case.
"It depends on the facts of the family, how much income they've lost, how many children they've left behind," Savage said. "It's almost impossible to compare damages in one wrongful case to another, even though they arise out of the same tragedy."
David T. Royse, an attorney who represented five families of victims and served as plaintiffs' liaison counsel on behalf of the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee, said each 5191 family has suffered and must make its own decisions in terms of settling.
"Based on what I have seen and the verdict by the jury, I have complete confidence that my clients did the right thing at the right time, based on their individual situations, and there are absolutely no regrets," Royse wrote in an e-mail message.