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Fri, May 24

Supervisors to discuss plane crash lawsuit

The aftermath of a fatal plane crash that led to a lawsuit against Yavapai County will be the topic of an executive session when the Board of Supervisors meets Monday.

The three-member board must decide whether that suit, brought by the families of two of the victims, will settle or proceed to trial, said David Hunt, counsel to the board. Last month Superior Court Judge Ralph M. Hess ordered a Dec. 6 scheduling conference to set a date for trial, according to court records.

Former county medical examiner Dr. Philip Keen is evaluating a settlement offer, said his lawyer, Christopher Jensen. However, Jensen said Keen needs to know the county's position before deciding whether to proceed with the offer, hence the executive session.

The crash, which occurred about 16 miles northwest of Prescott, killed pilot William "Billy" Friedman and passengers Andy Boquet, Donald Morris, Joshua Vaughan and Warren Parkes. Boquet and Morris were former military and commercial pilots. Vaughan was a photographer and mobile disc jock. Parkes was a photographer and the executive director of the Arizona Skyfest air show. Friedman was the operations director of the air show.

On Oct. 18, 2006, Friedman flew a Piper Cheyenne under a much larger Soviet MiG-21 a few weeks after the Arizona Skyfest air show at the Ernest A. Love Field to check if the jet's landing gear had retracted, National Transportation Safety Board officials said shortly after the accident. The force of the MiG's jet exhaust ripped off the upper section of the Cheyenne's vertical stabilizer, likely sending the small, twin-engine plane into an irreversible dive.

Family members of the victims also filed other lawsuits against various parties alleging wrongful death; those suits resulted in out-of-court settlements, said Mark W. Drutz, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Drutz did not disclose the settlement amounts.

In the lawsuit involving Yavapai County brought by Dorothy, Michael and Monica Morris, Kimberly Scoggin and Amy Vaughan, the plaintiffs allege the county was negligent in how it handled the victims' remains. In addition to the county and Keen, Arizona Professional Transport and R Triple T Corp., a funeral home company, were also named as defendants. Yavapai County contracted with Arizona Transport to clean up the crash site and transport the bodies of the victims to the Medical Examiner's Office, the suit said.

On Oct. 21, 2006, officials from the NTS and the sheriff's office met with the families of the victims at the airport. At that meeting, officials told the family members the NTS had released the crash scene and that workers had taken the victims' remains to the medical examiner's office. Officials told the families that the remains would be identified and then released to funeral homes, the suit said.

Lieutenant David Rhodes escorted the Morris family members to the crash site two days later. They searched the area, hoping to find Donald Morris' wedding ring.

"The Morris children each located objects in the rubble of the crash site area in order to scrape and scoop at the ground to move the dirt and ashes around," the lawsuit said. "At some point the Morris children began to realize that their digging tools actually were human skeletal remains."

Dorothy Morris saw her children become "hysterical, laughing and crying simultaneously upon the shocking realization that the human skeletal remains that they had been holding may have been their father's remains," the suit said.

Kimberly Scoggin also saw human bones resting on the ground, the suit said.

The suit claims the county and other defendants "breached their duty to the Morris family by failing to clear the crash site of human remains, knowing that they had lost a family member in a plane crash just days before and disregarding the near certainty that discovery of such remains would result in emotional distress."

Also, the suit alleges that Dorothy Morris notified Keen through her lawyer that she wanted the additional remains found at the crash site to be identified and turned over to the families so they could be placed in a planned monument. Instead, Keen replied that "any non-unique or unidentifiable tissue remains are disposed of in accordance with accepted biohazard protocols and are no longer available in the office or to anyone."

The county has denied any wrongdoing in its response.

Meanwhile, Jensen, Keen's lawyer, said the county brought his client into the lawsuit by telling the plaintiffs that Keen was "a possible person at fault," so they also sued him. The county then filed a cross-claim against Keen to repay it if it is required to pay any money to Morris and the other plaintiffs, Jensen said. However, Superior Court Judge David L Mackey dismissed the county's cross-claim, finding it was in "bad faith," Jensen said.

Then in January, Keen sued the county, a case being heard in Coconino County, saying that Yavapai County had acted in bad faith against him by "dragging him into this lawsuit," Jensen said. Keen seeks the expenses and attorney fees that he incurred from the litigation.


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