2009 story: Families sue over deadly air crash

This is a story published in The Modesto Bee Oct 21, 2009.

The families of Dave Mesenhimer and Chuck Billington are suing four aircraft companies who manufactured, sold or promoted the airplane that crashed and killed the two men near Oakdale in February 2006.

Three years after the crash, federal safety regulators moved to ground the two-seat plane the men were flying when they crashed in a walnut orchard near Oakdale Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the Zodiac CH-601XL had design flaws that can cause its wings to flutter and break. Eight others have died in five crashes since the one that killed Mesenhimer and Billington.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has the authority to ground the plane, has not acted yet.

The companies “knew that the Zodiac Aircraft and component parts were dangerous and defective,” the lawsuit reads.

In a response, Zenith Aircraft said the crash was caused by the ”negligence” of Mesenhimer and Billington. The company said both had

”full appreciation” of the risks involved. Zenith also alleges that the damage was caused by the alteration and improper use of the plane.

Mesenhimer was an experienced pilot and flight instructor who co-founded Modesto Flight Center in 1983. Billington, a businessman

and 20-year member of the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors, was seeking to renew his pilot’s license the day the Zodiac crashed.

Billington bought the plane in December 2005 from a Southern California man who built it from a kit sold by Zenith.

Both parties will be back in Stanislaus County Superior Court on Nov. 4, when a judge can decide whether a trial is needed or if one party is entitled to a judgment.

The families said Zenith Aircraft Company, Quality Sport Planes and Zenair agreed to pay $100,000 in damages to each family April 20, in exchange for a release of liability and dismissal of the lawsuit.

They failed to pay, according to legal papers.

Now, they seek unspecified damages for loss of financial support, funeral and burial expenses, and noneconomic damages such as loss of ”love, companionship, comfort, care, protection, affection, society, solace and/or moral support.” The families also seek punitive damages.

The Mesenhimer family referred comments to its lawyer, and the Billington family did not respond to requests for comment. Lawyers for both sides did not return calls for comment.

According to the lawsuit:

At 3 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2006, the Zodiac airplane departed from Modesto Airport. Eighteen minutes later, the airplane broke up in flight and crashed as it attempted to land at Oakdale Airport.

At least one wing of the airplane bent at a right angle to the fuselage and the aircraft’s nose pitched down, causing the aircraft to be uncontrollable in a “catastrophic dive” to the ground.

Mesenhimer and Billington died instantly.