$10.5 million jury verdict in death of pilot

The estate and widow of a man who died a “horrible death” after he crashed in an experimental airplane at the Arlington Airport in 1999 has been awarded about $10.5 million because there was inadequate fire protection stationed at the Arlington Fly-In.

A court order awarding that amount was signed Tuesday by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge following a jury trial in December.

Donald Allen Corbitt of Bellevue was injured but initially survived the crash of his RV-6A experimental plane, said Seattle lawyer Frank Smith.

He was pinned inside the wreckage when a fire broke out, Smith said.

“Bystanders assisted Mr. Corbitt by keeping flames at bay with fire extinguishers while trying to extricate him from the wreckage,” Smith said. “All waited for emergency response services, which finally arrived.”

Although the city disputed the claim, Smith argued that it took fire crews up to six minutes to reach the crash.

By then, the portable fire extinguishers gave out. Corbitt died in the flames before firefighters could extinguish the blaze.

“He died a horrible death,” Smith said.

The defendants are the sponsors of the annual air show, the Northwest Experimental Aircraft Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association based in Wisconsin.

The city of Arlington also was sued, but the city and its fire department were dismissed from the lawsuit two years ago, and won’t be responsible for damages.

The jury found the event sponsors didn’t provide enough emergency response and fire protection at the 1999 event, and that failure caused Corbitt’s death.

The air show’s sponsors and lawyer could be not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Smith and colleague Robert Hedrick argued that because of the built-in danger of the air show, the sponsors should have arranged to have ample fire and emergency response crews at the airport.

Instead, they relied on the city of Arlington Fire Department, which in 1999 had personnel and equipment at the airport, said Kristin Banfield, assistant city administrator.

She said the city fire department regularly stations fire response personnel and equipment at the airport during the fly-in, and adjusts its activities annually depending on circumstances.

Although the jury awarded $10.5 million, Corbitt’s estate likely will receive about $9.8 million.

That’s because the jury found Arlington 15 percent responsible, even though the city had previously been dismissed from the suit.

Seattle lawyer Jeffrey Laveson represented the air show sponsors. He said in court papers that Corbitt was responsible for his own death, and that he would have died regardless of the availability of more fire personnel.

Smith, who represented widow Karen Corbitt, noted there had been numerous accidents at or near the airport over the years during the annual air show, including a fatal crash the day before Corbitt died.

The event is the third largest fly-in in the nation, attracting as many as 1,500 aircraft and 50,000 visitors, Smith said. During the fly-in, the Arlington Airport is the busiest airport in the state, perhaps the West Coast, he added.

“You’ve got to be on notice this is a dangerous activity,” Smith said.

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