Kate Ready Jackson Hole News&Guide Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Wyoming Balloon Company is now facing five lawsuits after three of its hot air balloons crashed near Teton Village due to an unexpected gust of wind during a flight Aug. 3, 2020.
A dozen passengers were injured in the incident, which ejected passengers as well as one of the pilots, and 11 were sent to hospital.
Linda Columbus was the first of the passengers to file a lawsuit in April 2021 in federal district court. His costume was consolidated with that of Curt and Jennifer Haselton, Steven Gaddy and Kelly De Souza Gaddy, as well as Jonathan Doucet and Allie Watson.
All parties are suing the balloon company, as well as individual pilots, for negligence. Some are seeking to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills resulting from injuries they have suffered.
The company wants to take the case to a jury. Andrew Breffeilh, the company’s owner, was unavailable for comment.
Unique to the case is the highly educated nature of many of the plaintiffs; the majority are doctors of medicine or hold a doctorate.
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The latest to file a claim is Dr. Ilya Krayevsky, an anesthetist from New York who was on the same flight as Columbus with his family. His costume has been consolidated with the other four and all are entering the discovery phase.
“No trial date has been set,” said Wyoming Balloon Company attorney Bret King. “That will only be fixed after all discoveries in the case are complete in about six to eight months.”
The group of people is not large enough to invoke class action proceedings, King confirmed.
“There are five cases filed,” King said. “It’s pretty easy to manage.”
No decision has yet been made as to whether the cases will go to trial and, if so, whether the trials will be separated or remain consolidated.
“Injury damage claims would likely be adjudicated separately,” King said. “What is consolidated and not will ultimately depend on the judge [Melissa] Owens to decide.
According to Krayevsky’s court record, during the balloon’s descent, the basket that was carrying Krayevsky, his family, and other passengers hit the ground three times. During the second contact of the balloon with the ground, the pilot Richard Lawhorn was ejected from the basket. As the balloon ascended, unmanned, Lawhorn yelled at the passengers to “pull the red rope.”
Pulling the red string, the ball descended rapidly, hit the ground a third time with great force, hit a fence, but then continued to move and drag on the ground.
Krayevsky is an anesthesiologist residing in New York and suffered “serious injuries”, according to the complaint.
“[Krayevsky] was out of work for some time due to his shoulder injuries,” said Krayevsky’s attorney, Bradley Booke. “He is recovering, back to work, but he has to be very careful with his rehabilitation.”
Eleven passengers in total were on Lawhorn’s flight: Columbus, Kreyevsky and their families, as well as Curt and Jennifer Haselton, a married couple from California, and Florida residents Steven Gaddy and Kelly De Souza Gaddy. Steven Gaddy was one of the passengers responsible for pulling the red ropes and bringing their balloon to its final descent. Louisiana residents Jonathan Doucet and his wife, Allie Watson, were also on the flight.
According to the complaints, Ms Haselton suffered a fractured vertebra and shoulder, among other injuries. Doucet was thrown from the basket and lost consciousness. Watson was thrown from the ball basket and then pinned on her back under the basket and dragged. His ear was severed from his head and then surgically reattached, his collarbone broken and his sternum fractured.
Gaddy’s complaint said the “immediate aftermath of the balloon crash…felt like a war zone”.
The pilots of the other two balloons that crashed, Richard Glas and business owner Breffeilh, are also listed as accused along with John Doe, who piloted a fourth balloon that day. Court documents say John Doe’s balloon landed safely that morning.
Booke expects the next step in the cases to be the deposition of the balloon pilots.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration. The NTSB has not yet completed its report, according to Booke.
The statute of limitations for the crash landing is four years, so there is potential for more cases.
“It’s really hard to say [if there will be more]”, King said. “We received letters from lawyers shortly after this happened and all have now filed lawsuits. I suspect that the other passengers were not injured or that their injuries are This is a difficult case for the plaintiffs as it was a very unexpected weather event, not pilot error and they all signed waivers before flying acknowledging the risks to fly, including unexpected weather events…but if someone files later, it’s unlikely their cases would be consolidated with those and proceed on their own.