Unethical Lawsuit Blame Games: The Eric Johnson Murder-Suicide

...I'm just going to blame you.

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.

7 thoughts on “Unethical Lawsuit Blame Games: The Eric Johnson Murder-Suicide

  1. Hmmmm. Was Johnson properly licensed to fly a plane when he checked it out at the airport? If so, was there any conceivable way that the airport authorities could have known that he was mentally unhinged and capable of committing a crime with it? If the respective answers are yes and no, then no state of negligence or wrongful death can be laid at anyone’s doorstep but Johnson’s. Of course, his act of taking his little girl along with him on his death flight was unspeakable to the extreme.

    • He was licensed to fly solo, and there was, according to the conclusions at trail, no reason why the authorities should have suspected that he would use the plane for violence. The issue was whether he was appropriately cleared for solo flight.

  2. Was there any cause or detail that would have normally disqualified a pilot for this? Or is this merely a matter of disputing the instructor’s opinion? If the latter, what is the instructor’s background and record prior to this event?

  3. The various questions posed by other readers presumably were fully explored in the trial, which absolved the defendants in the case. Johnson did exactly what he planned to do, apparently with great precision. While this is an evil act of unspeakable proportions, the tendency of the aggrieved to find someone to blame — if they can’t get to the actual perpetrator — is going out of control. Will the DMV soon be sued for not assessing a driver’s mental state before issuing a license? Or since DMVs are government agencies, will a driving school be sued for teaching someone to drive who eventually commits murder with his car?

    This is a real tragedy, as I said before, but the “blame” is on Johnson, and no one else. Someone thinks they can make money off of this, too. The lawyer or the ex-wife?

  4. I agree that this kind of lawsuit is unethical and should not have been brought to trial. But here’s what really disturbs me: There was a restraining order in place after this man threatened his ex-wife at gunpoint. In MA you must surrender all firearms when a judge has signed off on a restraining order against you. But I am unaware of anything on the order that addresses flying planes. If someone with a pilot’s license (to fly solo!) is unhinged enough to hold a person at gunpoint there ought to be a restriction against flying planes until such time as a medical professional testifies in court that the person is mentally stable enough to fly – especially if they are licensed to fly solo. I am unaware of any such restriction in MA – and there probably exists no such restriction in Indiana or it would have been part of the lawsuit. Often times otherwise frivolous lawsuits are helpful in bringing to the public a need for restrictions for the safety of the public – and it seems an opportunity was missed here.

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