A federal judge on Wednesday December 28, 2011, ordered the federal government to pay $17.8 million to the relatives of four family members who were killed three years ago when a Marine jet fighter (F-18 Hornet) crashed into a San Diego home near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The lawyer representing the family had asked the Judge to award $56 million. The case was tried only as to the issue of the family’s compensation. The government had admitted that the crash and the resulting deaths were the result of several layers of incompetence. A wrongful death claim against the U.S. government is decided by the federal judge. The plaintiffs in a FTCA claim are not entitled to jury trial.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller said Don Yoon, whose wife, Youngmi; daughters, Rachel and Grace; and mother-in-law, Seokim Lee, perished in the crash, should receive $9.6 million in compensation.
Miller ruled Sanghyun Lee, Seokim’s husband, should receive $3.7 million. Youngmi’s three siblings received $1.5 million each for the loss of their mother and sister.
The amounts covers lost wages and property as well as compensation for the loss of companionship, love and care of the four who died. Miller awarded Don Yoon a total of $6.1 million in noneconomic compensation for the deaths of his wife and children.
An article in the San Diego Union released the terms of the judge’s award. On line comments about the Judge’s award covered the gamut with outrage being at each end. At one end, commenters believed that the result was typical “jackpot justice” and was more than enough to fairly compensate. Complaints were aired that we, the taxpayers, are the “losers” and eventually will pay. There was more than one observation that the award would allow the recipients and their families to be financially secure for generations. At the other end, writers sympathetic to the family stated that no amount is adequate for the losses suffered by the survivors; that the total award of $17.8 million was not even the cost of one F-18 Hornet; that the award was, in the overall scheme of government expenditures, a pittance.
The overwhelming majority of wrongful death trials are submitted for decision to a jury, not a judge. Even wrongful death cases which are eligible for jury trial are settled (some statistics suggest that settlements occur in over 90% of all personal injury and death claims) and are not decided either by a judge or a jury. Settlements occur because neither the surviving family nor the defendant or his insurer can predict with certainty what a jury or judge will award in a case. When a party elects to let a jury decide the case, that party is gambling with the unknown. Settlement removes the uncertainty of trial by jury, results in quicker resolution of the case, and saves each party the considerable time and expense required for trial. Settlement allows both parties some control of the outcome of the lawsuit. Once the decision is turned over to a judge or jury, the parties lose control of the process and place their fate in the hands of twelve strangers.
There are rational arguments that the Judge’s award either was too generous or inadequate. In most federal cases, there are mandatory settlement conferences before trial. It would be interesting to know if there was a settlement conference in this case; and, if so, which party elected to gamble that they (the family) or it (the government) could beat the offer on the table.