NEW YORK – A Minnesota airplane manufacturer isn't responsible for the deaths of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor, who were killed when their small plane crashed into a Manhattan apartment building, a jury concluded Tuesday.
The Manhattan jury returned its verdict after three hours of deliberation, ending a one-month trial that featured testimony by Lidle's widow and from a retired space shuttle astronaut who was called by Duluth, Minn.-based Cirrus Design Corp. to support its contention that pilot error was to blame. The National Transportation Safety Board had made the same finding, though that was not permitted to be introduced in court.
The families of Lidle and instructor Tyler Stanger insisted the plane went down in October 2006 because its flight controls jammed.
The verdict came one day after Patrick Bradley, a lawyer for the company, told jurors: "It is wrong and it is unfair to blame someone else for something they did not do."
Hunter Shkolnik, the families' attorney, had asked the jury to award more than $40 million to Lidle's family and $3.5 million to Stanger's survivors, based on the amount of money both men would have earned in the future. Lidle, who was 34, died just days after his baseball season ended. Stanger was 26.
Lidle and Stanger took a sightseeing trip around the Statue of Liberty in Lidle's Cirrus SR-20 when they flew up the East River, where there is limited space to roam because of restrictions related to three major international airports in the New York City area. The plane struck a 550-foot-tall building on the Upper East Side.
In his closing argument, Bradley said the pilots did not leave enough room to make the turn and flew too low, at only half the height of the Empire State Building. He said the men managed to recover from a stall and went around a building and "then right in front of it was the condominiums."
"There were no choices for these pilots," he told jurors. "The aircraft crash at that time was tragically a foregone conclusion."
Shkolnik argued that the plane was manufactured with defects that the company knew of and failed to warn its customers about.
"What happened here is there was a defect in the plane and it lost control," he said.
After the verdict, Shkolnik asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones to set aside the jury's findings. She set a schedule for written submissions.
Shkolnik told The Associated Press that the jury result was predictable because the judge refused to allow jurors to hear that the company revised its manufacturing process after the crash to prevent the flight controls from getting jammed. She also had ruled that they could not hear that a flight instructor had a lockup of flight controls and almost crashed in a similar plane.
Melanie Lidle cried as she left the courtroom.
"They're devastated," Shkolnik said of the wives.
Bill King, Cirrus' vice president of business administration, said the company was gratified with the verdict.
"Our hearts are with the Lidle and Stanger families who are still grieving," he said in a statement.
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