The late financier Michael Klein wasn’t negligent in the crash that killed him, his daughter and a pilot when their plane slammed into the side of a volcano in Panama on Dec. 23, 2007, a jury found.
The Santa Barbara Superior Court jury instead found that the pilot of the plane and the man who owned the charter company were negligent in the crash. The verdict came after nearly two days of deliberations and a grueling 17-day wrongful death civil trial in which dozens of witnesses took the stand.
Michael Klein was a wunderkind financier who graduated college at 17 and built and successfully sold technology companies to Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo! before moving into investing by buying out Santa Barbara-based hedge fund Pacificor. He died in a plane crash while on vacation on a set of Panamanian islands that he was turning into an eco-resort.
Kim Klein, Michael Klein’s ex-wife, filed a civil suit against Michael Klein’s estate in mid-2008 for the wrongful death of their daughter, Talia Klein. Francesca Lewis, a friend of Talia Klein’s, survived the crash. Her family also sued Michael Klein’s estate for personal injury but settled during the trial.
Kim Klein’s attorneys tried to paint Michael Klein, who had earned a pilot’s license but wasn’t at the controls the day he died, as a savvy flyer whose strong personality could persuade Panamanian pilot Edwin Lasso to fly into cloud cover when the pilot knew he shouldn’t have.
But Michael Klein’s attorneys argued that the financier took all the necessary safety precautions one would expect of a sophisticated businessman and loving father who planned a flight for himself and his daughter. The fact that Michael Klein got on the plane, the attorneys argued, served as proof he thought it was safe to do so.
Both sides agree that Klein never took the Cessna 172’s controls. Instead, Michael Klein’s attorneys argued, the crash was Lasso’s fault. Trying to take a shortcut through cloud cover, he turned left too soon and smashed into an 11,000-foot volcano.
The jury sided with Michael Klein’s attorneys. They found Lasso 95 percent responsible for the crash and Marvin Matthews, the owner of the charter company who sent Lasso, 5 percent responsible. The jury awarded no damages.
“We always believed in our case and were particularly happy to have Mr. Klein, who sadly was not there to defend himself, vindicated,” said Nancy Lucas, a partner at Los Angeles-based Haight Brown & Bonesteel who worked on the defense for Michael Klein’s estate, in an e-mail to the Business Times. “The accident was a tragedy, but it just wasn’t his fault.”
Kim Klein’s attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment about the verdict.[UPDATE, 2:45 p.m.: Kim Klein’s attorneys told the Business Times they plan to appeal the verdict.]