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Family sues airplane engine manufacturers for death of their son

Laurel Andrews
A family whose son perished in a 2010 plane crash shortly after takeoff in Anchorage is suing the engine manufacturers over allegations of a faulty plane engine, two years after a government agency found that the cause of the crash was a plane overloaded with timber and tiles. Loren Holmes photo

An Alaska family whose son perished in a fiery 2010 plane crash shortly after takeoff in busy midtown Anchorage is suing the engine manufacturers over allegations of a faulty plane engine, two years after a government agency found that the cause of the crash was a plane overloaded with timber and tiles.

“This is a very important case for them,” the family’s attorney Bob Hopkins said.

Pilot Preston Cavner took off from Merrill Field in Anchorage on the afternoon of June 1, 2010, headed for the family lodge in Port Alsworth, 180 miles west of Anchorage, with his family and childrens' babysitter. Witnesses reported seeing the Cessna U206F flying off-kilter, its nose too high in the air. The plane crashed next to a vacant building on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Ingra in downtown Anchorage, blocks from where it departed. Passersby turned rescuers, and four people were pulled from the wreckage as the plane burned.

The Cavner’s 4-year-old son, Myles, perished. The other passengers -- Pilot Preston and and his wife Stacie Cavner, 2-year-old son Hudson Cavner, and babysister Rachel Zientek, all suffered severe injuries.

Stacie Cavner suffered the amputation of both of her lower legs, and the fingers on her right hand. Zientek suffered a broken back and permanent scarring on more than a fifth of her body. Preston Cavner lost vision to his right eye, a back fracture and facial reconstruction. Hudson Cavner faced severe burns, including over nearly his entire scalp with permanent loss of hair, and the loss of his right ear. The medical bills for the four survivors are listed as more than $3 million.

“Obviously the Cavner family was devastated by the crash,” Hopkins said, suffering “major injuries and humongous medical bills.”

Faulty engine or overloaded plane?

“It’s our belief that the cause of the crash related to the loss of power of the engine and that had not been thoroughly investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board,” Hopkins said.

A report released by the National Transportation Safety Board in January 2011 found that the airplane, headed for the owner’s lodge in Port Alsworth, was overloaded by more than 650 pounds, including 400 pounds of lumber and 300 pounds of tile. The report also includes an interview with a mechanic who "stated he saw the pilot operate the airplane in what he believed was an overweight condition on four or five separate occasions." The same mechanic said that he had not seen the pilot weigh any cargo loaded into the plane on those occasions.

The wrongful death suit being pursued by the Cavners alleges a different cause behind the fatal crash: a faulty engine.

They are suing three companies that manufactured, refurbished and installed the engine in the aircraft: Continental Motors, Inc., which rebuilt the engine; Northwest Seaplanes, Inc., which replaced parts on the engine; and Ace Aviation, which serviced the aircraft and engine in Washington, and conducted an inspection of the work.

The complaint alleges that Ace Aviation found low compression on two of the cylinders, but the company didn’t advise Preston Cavner to correct said low compression before flying, resulting in “a loss of engine power preventing it’s maintaining flight and resulting in its crashing,” according to court documents.  

The complaint asks for compensation for the medical bills, and all related costs, both physical and psychological, including “the loss of care, comfort, society and companionship, past and future for the death of Myles Cavner.”

A settlement is underway with Northwest Seaplanes, Inc., according to a court document from April, but Hopkins said that nothing has been finalized. Calls for comments to the three defendants were not returned.

Reconsideration not pursued

There is one other option the family could pursue: a reconsideration of the NTSB's findings. For that to happen, new evidence must be presented that could potentially change the probable cause of a crash. NTSB can then choose to re-examine the case, weighing any new evidence.

The family hasn’t chosen to pursue this route, however. Hopkins said that even if the NTSB decided to reconsider the case, a reversal of their findings would accomplish little for the family. NTSB probable cause findings are not admissible in court, per government regulations, and have no impact on ongoing litigation.

The wrongful death suit continues to wind its way through the King County court in Washington, entering its second year. Preston Cavner still has his commercial pilot’s license, but it is valid only for flight tests or student pilot purposes. Meanwhile, the Cavners still own the Stonewood Lodge in Port Alsworth, devoted to hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife viewing. 

Contact Laurel Andrews laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com