Defendants not negligent in father's suicide, murder of daughter

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A father’s decision to crash a plane his daughter was in – killing them both – superseded any negligence that may be attributed to his flight instructor or other defendants in a wrongful death action, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday.

Beth Ann Johnson, Eric Johnson’s ex-wife and mother of their daughter Emily, sued the Lawrence County Board of Aviation, Eric’s flight instructor Tony Newbold, and the Lawrence County commissioners for damages for Emily’s wrongful death. Eric was supposed to take Emily to school, but instead, brought her to Grissom Airport in Lawrence County and flew the plane the two were in into Beth’s mother’s home.

Prior to the crash, Eric cursed at Beth on the phone and told her he’d see her and her boyfriend in hell.

Eric was a student of Newbold and had not had enough training to fly solo with a passenger. No one at the airport thought anything of seeing Eric there, and they did not see Emily in the plane.

The Lawrence Circuit Court granted summary judgment for all the defendants based on Eric’s intentional act of flying the plane into the home. Beth argued that the evidence didn’t establish that it was a murder/suicide and that it could have been an accident. She also claimed the trial court erred in determining that the misuse of an aircraft wasn’t a foreseeable consequence of the airport’s non-existent security procedures.  

The trial court was correct in ruling in favor of the defendants, the judges held, because the evidence shows that Eric intended to crash the plane and his criminal acts triggered the intervening, superseding cause doctrine and broke the causal chain between the aviation board’s alleged negligence and Emily’s death. None of the actions or inaction of the defendants could be considered proximate cause of the child’s death as a matter of law, wrote Judge John Baker in Beth Ann Johnson, Mother of: Emily Johnson, Deceased Minor Child v. Lance Jacobs, Steven J. Cummins, Stacy Cummings, Lawrence County Board of Aviation Commissioners, Tony Newbold, Lawrence County Commissioners, No. 47A01-1102-CT-35.

Also, nothing in the record suggests that the defendants should have foreseen that Eric would use the rented airplane to commit murder and suicide because of a purported violation of a duty to properly secure the airplane. He was on the calendar that day for a scheduled flying lesson, no one saw Emily at the airport or on the plane, and he didn’t act out of the ordinary that day.


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