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Judge awards $17.8 million to family of military jet crash victims

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:03 AM EST, Thu December 29, 2011
Brian Panish is the Yoon family's lead counsel:
Brian Panish is the Yoon family's lead counsel: "I think the judge was trying to send a message that family is important."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Don Yoon lost his wife, two infant daughters and mother-in-law in the crash
  • The family had sought $56 million from the federal government
  • The jet crash happened in December 2008

(CNN) -- A federal judge Wednesday ordered the government to pay more than $17 million to a family that lost four members when a U.S. Marine Corps jet crashed into a California house in 2008.

The family of Don Yoon -- who lost his wife, two young daughters, and mother-in-law -- said it believed it was a "thoughtful, fair, and reasoned decision" by the judge, said Brian Panish, lead counsel for the family.

Relatives had sought $56 million from the federal government, but in the end were awarded $17.8 million.

"I think the judge was trying to send a message that family is important," Panish said of the judgment ordered by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller.

CNN iReport: Neighbor was first to call 911

An F/A-18 Hornet headed to nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar crashed into the family's house in San Diego on December 8, 2008, after the pilot reported having trouble. The house and another unoccupied one next door were destroyed by the ensuing fire.

The pilot, who ejected safely at 400 feet, tried desperately to steer the plane away from danger and screamed in horror when he saw it had crashed into the house, military documents showed.

Killed in the crash were Yoon's daughter Rachel, who was almost 2 months old; his 15-month-old daughter Grace; his wife, Young Mi Moon; and her mother, Suk Im Kim, who had recently come to the United States from Korea to help take care of the children.

Wednesday's verdict came almost exactly seven years after Yoon married his late wife on Christmas Day 2004, said Panish.

Yoon has said he does not blame the pilot and has urged prayers for the pilot not to suffer.

Yoon still lives in San Diego, with his sister and brother-in-law, Panish said. He said Yoon has been "doing the best he can to get through every day, but it's very difficult for him to have such a tragic loss without warning."

In a statement read by Panish, Yoon said, "Our family is relieved that this part of the process is over, but no sum of money will ever make up for the loss of our loved ones. I still harbor no ill will towards the United States Marine Corps and the pilot that did all he could to prevent this tragedy."

Panish said family members who testified stayed strong and told the story of a loving family and how immeasurable they felt the losses were. He praised the judge for understanding those family relationships.

"The only way to know what someone lost is to know what they had, and he got what they had, and he could measure as best you can the tremendous loss they suffered," Panish said.

Some of those who testified at the trial spoke Korean and had to use an interpreter, Panish said.

He said he hopes the government will abide by the judge's ruling.

U.S. Justice Department attorney Bruce Ross told the judge that the family was entitled to "just and reasonable" damages, CNN San Diego affiliate KGTV reported.

The Marine Corps sacked four top officers of the fighter squadron and disciplined nine other Marines after an investigation showed deferred maintenance and faulty decisions by ground controllers and the pilot contributed to the crash.

The investigation found the jet's right engine experienced a string of emergencies that left it relying on the left engine, which had already given mechanics indications of a problem.

Though maintenance rules don't require immediate repairs for the problem, the squadron flew the jet 146 times before it eventually crashed because the left engine was starved for fuel.

The investigation criticized the pilot for not consulting a pocket checklist that outlined emergency procedures. And while controllers aboard the aircraft carrier that launched the jet urged the pilot to land at a nearby Navy airfield at North Island, squadron officers relied on "incorrect assumptions and inaccurate data" to guide him back to the plane's base at Miramar, the investigation found.

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