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Jury finds Anchorage pilot was at fault in 2010 plane crash that killed his son

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 27, 2016

A lawsuit over a 2010 Anchorage plane crash that killed a child and severely injured others has ended with the jury placing full blame on the pilot.

A Superior Court jury in King County, Washington, delivered its verdict against the pilot, Preston Cavner, on April 11. Court documents show the jurors laid 100 percent of the responsibility for the death and injuries in the crash on Cavner, who was flying his wife, sons and a babysitter out to a lodge.

The Cavners blamed the plane's engine manufacturers for a faulty product. The companies included Continental Motors, Ace Aviation and Northwest Seaplanes. That claim came about two years after the National Transportation Safety Board found the cause of the crash was a plane overloaded with timber and tiles.

Preston Cavner became a defendant in the case when his wife and sons, through their attorney, filed cross claims against him. He denied overloading the plane leading up to the trial but changed his story on the stand, said attorney Will Skinner, who represented Continental Motors.

It took over four years for the case to end with the trial, and Skinner said the lawsuit should have never been filed.

"Numerous witnesses gave interviews about what they observed" on the day of the accident, Skinner said. "Almost everyone said the engine was running fine. It was clear what happened. The guy (Cavner) overloaded the plane -- too many people and too much stuff."

Cavner took off from Merrill Field near downtown 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 the children's babysitter. Witnesses said the Cessna U206F flew off-kilter, its nose too high. The plane crashed next to a vacant building on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Ingra Street, about a half-mile from the runway.

The Cavners' 4-year-old son, Myles, was killed. The other passengers -- Preston Cavner and his wife Stacie; their 2-year-old son, Hudson; and babysitter Rachel Zientek -- all suffered severe injuries.

Ace Aviation and Northwest Seaplanes settled with the plaintiffs before the trial, said Bob Hopkins, who represented Stacie Cavner, Zientek and her parents. He said the terms of the settlements were confidential. Court documents say Continental rebuilt the engine; Northwest Seaplanes replaced parts on the engine; and Ace Aviation serviced the aircraft and engine in Washington, and conducted an inspection of the work.

Preston Cavner was represented separately. He and his attorney wouldn't comment about the outcome of the case.

Hopkins said there were appealable issues being considered. He was able to make a claim that the plane engine was mismanufactured, and that Continental Motors failed to warn and properly instruct owners about that alleged issue. The plaintiffs weren't able to bring forward another argument that the engine had a design defect, he said.

Jurors calculated damages totaling millions for the victims of the plane crash. The verdict absolved Continental from owing money. However, attorneys for Stacie Cavner and her sons filed cross-claims against Preston, arguing they didn't blame him but if the jury found otherwise, judgments should be entered for injuries and damages.

Hopkins said he doesn't know if his clients will seek the money. They don't expect to be able to retrieve it, he said.

"We were disappointed in the result. We think we were precluded from putting on major parts of our case to the jury, which provided appealable issues under consideration right now," Hopkins said.

Skinner (the defense attorney who represented Continental) disagreed. The jury sent a very strong message when it faulted Preston Cavner, he said.

"I really don't think there is a valid argument given the evidence," Skinner said.

The defense argued against the plaintiffs' claim that the engine was somehow defective. As the trial wound down, Skinner asked jurors to focus on the accounts of about a dozen eyewitnesses to the crash.

Skinner traveled to Alaska to record video interviews with the witnesses for the trial. Attempts to move the trial from Washington to Alaska were unsuccessful, and showing the recordings in court was the most efficient course of action, he said.

The videos separately confirmed some of the findings of the NTSB accident report released in January 2011. The report's findings weren't admissible in court, Skinner said.

According to the report, the plane 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 he had not seen the pilot weigh any cargo loaded into the plane on those occasions.

Preston Cavner maintained he did not overload the plane prior to trial, according to Skinner. During the trial, he allegedly claimed two Alaska companies trained him to load planes at about 15 percent over their maximum gross weight, he said.

The owners of both companies -- Lake and Peninsula Air and Lake Clark Air Inc. -- signed declarations in March stating they never trained Cavner to load planes, let alone overload aircraft.

Skinner said he interviewed many mechanics and seasoned aviators.

"He significantly overloaded the plane, and that's essentially the case we put on. There wasn't anything wrong with the engine, and I think from the results of the verdict, the jury got that very clearly," he said.

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