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Fri, Mar 07, 2003

Another Victory for Trial Lawyers

Lawyers, Family of Co-Pilot to Receive $22,600,000 in Crash Award

The family of a Chicago area co-pilot, killed when the pilot lost control during takeoff of a corporate jet crashed at Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling, Illinois in 1996, will finally receive the almost $19,000,000 that a Cook County jury awarded them in their lawsuit against Aon on January 24, 2001, plus 9% annual interest.

The Illinois Appellate Court upheld the award to the family of Robert "Hamp" Whitener, then 50, a corporate pilot for Alberto-Culver who was acting as co-pilot of the company's Gulfstream IV jet when it crashed shortly after takeoff on October 30, 1996.

The plane was piloted by an Aon pilot, Martin Larry Koppie, under an agreement the two companies had to share each other's planes. In addition to the two men, Arthur Quern, the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Aon Risk Management, and flight attendant Catherine Anderson were also killed in the crash of the Alberto-Culver plane.

Witnesses testified that as Koppie was attempting to take off, the plane skidded off the left side of the runway, barely cleared a fence at the end of the airfield, bounced over the highway and crashed, exploding into flames. A coroner's report indicated that Whitener survived the initial crash and died from burns and smoke inhalation as he tried to escape the wreckage.

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board cited several factors for the crash including: Koppie's losing control of the aircraft, his failure to abort take-off, lack of coordination between the two companies when there was a "mixed crew," and a ditch alongside the runway that stripped the plane's landing gear.

Today, the ditch remains next to part of the runway. Due to safety concerns, Aon moved its aviation base to Midway Airport in Chicago after the crash.

Whitener's wife, Teresa and their two children, a girl, now 17, and a boy, now 14, today live in Pennsylvania.

In their ruling Thursday, the Appellate Court affirmed the jury award for the family, $18,946,749. Statutory annual interest of 9% [the best investment available! --ed] is automatically added, increasing the award by $1,705,000 each year, for a judgment to date of approximately $22,600,000.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows: "failure of the pilot-in-command (PIC) to maintain directional control of the airplane during the takeoff roll in a gusty crosswind, his failure to abort the takeoff, and failure of the copilot to adequately monitor and/or take sufficient remedial action to help avoid the occurrence. Factors relating to the accident included the gusty crosswind condition, the drainage ditch, the flight crew's inadequate preflight, the Nose Wheel Steering Control Select Switch in the 'Handwheel Only' position, and the lack of standardization of the two companies' operations manuals and Interchage Agreement."

Aon had appealed the jury's verdict on various grounds. Although the NTSB had concluded there was nothing wrong with the plane, Aon contended that the plane's rudder or steering malfunctioned during takeoff. The NTSB conclusions were inadmissible during the two month trial.

Immediately before the trial, the Quern and Anderson cases settled against Alberto-Culver. The Palwaukee Municipal Airport Commission had been dismissed by a circuit court judge before the trial, but the Appellate Court reversed the dismissal during the Whitener trial.

Jerry A. Latherow, the Whiteners' attorney, said Alberto-Culver CEO Howard Bernick had been extremely supportive of Teresa and the children, staying in touch with the family and providing funds for the teenagers' college education. Nevertheless, Koppie's estate sued Alberto-Culver. That case went to trial in front of the same jury as the Whitener case, but ended with a hung jury. The Koppie case, which includes Palwaukee Airport again, is set to begin trial on March 13 before Judge Thomas Flanagan in Cook County Circuit Court.

FMI: NTSB report

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