This is the kind of case that should never be brought to trial. It isn’t frivolous: I can see the theory of damages prevailing before a jury. It is just an unethical lawsuit. It is the kind of suit that attempts to exploit sympathy for the victims of a tragedy by using the court system to shift some of the burden from those victims to an innocent party. The strategy can work; it often does, in fact. It neatly uses human nature and the power of rationalization to reach a result that feels like justice, but is really the opposite. This time, fortunately, the strategy failed.
Beth Johnson filed a wrongful-death lawsuit after her estranged husband Eric flew a private plane into her mother’s house, killing himself and their 8-year-old daughter, the only passenger. The suit against Eric’s flight instructor as well as the commissioners of Lawrence County (Indiana) and the county board of aviation commissioners alleged that they negligently allowed Eric, a student pilot, to fly solo.
Beyond any question, this was a catastrophe. Eric Johnson began taking flight lessons in July of 2006, shortly Beth petitioned to dissolve their marriage. Around the same time, “Eric threatened Beth and held her at gunpoint for an entire night,” leading Beth to take out a restraining order, according to the trial transcript. The divorce resulted in split custody of their only child, Emily. Eric remained angry and threatening, saying on several occasions that he would not permit Beth “to take Emily away from him” after the divorce.
In late February 2007, Eric Johnson took Emily to Cancun, Mexico, for a vacation; the plan was for the vacation to last until he took her back to school the first week of March. During the trip, however, Eric learned that his ex-wife had spent the week in Florida with her new boyfriend. He was enraged. Instead of taking Emily to school on March 5, he took her with him to an airport where he had reserved a small plane. Earlier that day, it was discovered later, Johnson sent a $500 donation to a local non-profit organization, requesting that a brick be engraved “Emily and Eric Johnson 3-1-07.”
On the fatal flight, Eric placed three calls to Beth’s cellphone, calling her a “bitch” and a “whore,” and vowing that he would see Beth and her boyfriend in Hell. He put his plane into a dive above his mother-in-law’s home and crashed directly into it, killing himself and Emily. Not surprisingly, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled the crash a suicide.
Does it sound to you like Eric Johnson’s lack of proper preparation to fly solo was the cause of this tragedy? Presumably not. The facts clearly indicate otherwise. Beth’s lawsuit attempted to assign blame for something the defendants did not cause, and could not have prevented. Maybe, as the lawsuit says, Eric Johnson was not ready to fly solo, but you couldn’t tell that from his actions on March 5. He flew the plane exactly where he wanted to go.
This is the legal doctrine of intervening cause. What killed Emily and her father was his deliberate conduct motivated by his fury and despair, not his inability to fly the plane. The trial court correctly determined that Eric’s murder-suicide broke the chain of causation and released the flight instructor and his co-defendants of liability. The argument made by Beth’s lawyers on appeal, however, proves the disingenuous nature of the lawsuit. They argued that Eric’s suicide was not sufficiently established, and that the plane crash may have been a “tragic accident.”
Yup, Eric Johnson just happened to crash the plane right after buying a memorial brick for himself and his daughter carrying the date of the crash to come, following his leaving a message that he would see Beth and her boyfriend in Hell, and hit her mother’s house by sheer coincidence. Uh, no.
“At some point during the conversation, Eric told Beth that she would never see Emily again,” Judge John Baker wrote for the appeals court. “Just before the plane crashed into [Beth’s mother’s] house, two bystanders witnessed the airplane abruptly angle downward and throttle its engines toward the ground, without taking the normal steps to prepare for landing, such as deploying flaps, reducing speed and shallowing descent. Eric crashed the plane into the house shortly thereafter. As noted above, Pace’s residence was one of 18,500 houses in Lawrence County.”
What a sad and horrible story. Nevertheless, these are among the kinds of lawsuits that should never be brought to court—intellectually dishonest, unfair to the defendants, expressing a sense of entitlement by a victim that the law exists to spread the misery around. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t.
The consolation is that this time, at least, justice prevailed.