Jurors clear Learjet in Payne Stewart crash trial

Updated: June 8, 2005, 8:19 PM ET
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Learjet should not be held responsible for the 1999 plane accident that killed golfer Payne Stewart, jurors said Wednesday.

The jury of six women deliberated for more than six hours after listening to more than a month of testimony.

Stewart won the U.S. Open, his third major victory, just months before his death.

His widow, Tracey, and their two children sued Learjet, claiming a cracked adapter caused an outflow valve to pull away from the plane's frame, resulting in a decompression and the escape of cabin air as the plane climbed to its flight altitude after leaving Orlando on Oct. 25, 1999. All communication with the plane was lost soon afterward and it flew on for hours, all aboard presumably unconscious, until it crashed in South Dakota.

Joining the lawsuit was the family of Robert Fraley, Stewart's agent, who also was on the flight.

The lawsuit had asked for $200 million.

In their verdict, jurors found that the plane's manufacture had no impact on the deaths of Stewart and Fraley, and that there was no negligence in the design or manufacture of the plane.

Jurors refused to comment after the verdict.

Tracey Stewart, her teenage son and college-aged daughter and Fraley's widow, Dixie Fraley Keller, said through a statement that "their hope in this effort was to make air travel safer ..."

"They brought this litigation not because of money in any capacity; it was always about responsibility," attorney Gregory McNeill said.

When asked why he thought jurors ruled the way they did, McNeill said, "There was a lot of science in this case, a lot of technical testimony."

All communication with the plane was lost soon afterward and it flew on for hours, all aboard presumably unconscious, until it crashed in a cow pasture.

Attorneys for Learjet told the jury that the plane lost pressure in another way and that damage to the valve was caused by the crash.

They also said the plane was poorly maintained by Sunjet, the now-defunct central Florida company that operated the Learjet used by Stewart and Fraley.

Learjet attorney Robert Banker referred all questions to Learjet's parent company, Bombardier Aerospace of Quebec.

"While this is certainly a tragedy, we're glad the court agrees with us that this tragedy was not ... caused by Learjet," said Leo Knaapen, a spokesman for that company.

Stewart attended Southern Methodist University.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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