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Fees cripple local crash victim

by Kurt Hildebrand

Pat and Robert Griffin were well on their way to retirement on Sept. 1, 2001, enjoying the Labor Day weekend in their Carson City yard when an airplane fell on Robert.

Nearly 18 months later, Robert is recovering, but legal and medical bills are crippling the couple.

On that Saturday evening high above the Griffins’ neighborhood, Dr. Kevin Jensen and his wife, Lois, were in trouble. The engine on Jensen’s Piper aircraft had stalled on approach to Carson City Airport when the doctor switched fuel tanks and tried to restart the aircraft.

Pat Griffin said the family was getting ready for a back-yard barbecue.

“My granddaughter and my husband were playing kickball,” she said. “I just finished the first apple pie with the apples from our tree; that was a big year for apples.”

That apple pie may have saved Griffin’s granddaughter, Shayla, who was 10 years old at the time. She came inside for a slice, just before Jensen’s airplane hit the Griffins’ tree at 7:53 p.m.

“Robert was coming in and then remembered he had to turn off the water on the snapdragons,” she said.

In that moment, the Griffins’ lives changed – for the worse.

Jensen’s Piper struck a tree and landed on top of Robert Griffin, crushing both his legs and putting him in Carson-Tahoe Hospital for several months.

Investigators said the accident occurred when Jensen failed to properly select a fuel tank in the aircraft, blocking fuel to the engine.

In his statements to a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, Jensen said he had trouble with the airplane sputtering since he’d purchased it June 2001. He told an investigator he experienced rough engine operation twice and took it in for work. After the work, Jensen flew to Boise on Aug. 11 and told the investigator the airplane sputtered during a climb.

The next time Jensen took the plane up would be Sept. 1 in Carson City. He told investigators he often had to take multiple fuel samples to get a clear one and that on Sept. 1 he pulled five samples before he had one free of floating brown flakes. The most recent annual inspection was performed July 13, 2000, and another had been due a month before the crash.

Jensen told investigators he shifted to the outboard fuel tank and, a minute later as he was turning in for landing, the engine cut out. The fuel pressure gauge read zero and the engine was not responding. The plane hit a tree, falling on Griffin as he watered his flowers.

“We had an angel in our corner,” Pat Griffin said. “He was in a hospital bed at home for a year and neither one of us could work.”

She said her husband decided he was not going to let the crash get in his way.

“He is an amazing man,” she said. “He made up his mind he was not going to be in a wheelchair for long. He was up on a walker and then using two canes and now he is using just one cane. He went to Carson-Tahoe Rehab every day and worked out at the swimming pool.”

But as he was learning to walk, medical bills were mounting.

The Griffins sued Jensen April 2, 2002, engaging Reno attorney Jack Kennedy to represent them. In court documents they claimed more than $200,000 in medical bills and loss of work as manufactured-home sellers.

“He assured us not to worry, that everything was fine,” she said of Kennedy.

Because Jensen was flying without an up-to-date airworthiness certificate, his insurance company balked at paying. Jensen blamed Carson City aircraft maintenance company El Aero for the certificate being out of date. The Griffins added El Aero to their lawsuit in October 2002. In a deposition, Jensen said he called El Aero and told the mechanic there to do anything needed to make the aircraft airworthy.

But the doctor complained that when he picked up the aircraft on Aug. 7, a month before the crash, neither the logbook nor the invoice were with the plane.

Court documents say El Aero’s mechanic said he told Jensen to pick up the log book from the firm’s offices when he paid his bill. El Aero finally sent Jensen the bill and still had the log book when the crash occurred.

In February, Carson City District Judge William Maddox held a hearing at El Aero’s request and set an April 4 trial date.

Then one blow after another fell on the legal front.

Jensen sued his insurer, Old Republic Insurance, in federal court, claiming the insurance company hadn’t informed him his insurance would lapse if he flew without keeping the airworthiness certificate current.

Federal Judge Larry Hicks threw out the case Aug. 5, saying the insurance company language was clear.

In legal filings, El Aero pointed out Jensen appeared to have caused the accident and that his insurance would have been in full force had he not flown the aircraft.

On Sept. 18, Maddox issued a preliminary ruling that El Aero was not responsible in the crash.

Then, on Oct. 23, Kennedy filed a motion to withdraw as the Griffins’ attorney.

Griffin said Kennedy dropped the couple as clients after they turned down a settlement of $30,000. However, in a sworn affidavit, Kennedy said when Mr. Griffin rejected the settlement he also fired the law firm.

“We’ve talked to other attorneys and none of them will help us,” Pat said. “There are heavy liens against the case. My husband and I are out of funds.”

The latest blow came Nov. 20 when Maddox cleared El Aero in the lawsuit. Dr. Jensen is the last defendent in the case, which goes to trial in spring.

“My husband and I are destitute,” Pat Griffin said. “We’re renting the house we are living in. It took all of my retirement fund and savings to get us through that first year. I don’t have any more heart left.”