Owners of the plane that crashed last December, killing regional Mexican star Jenni Rivera, are challenging a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Los Angeles on behalf of the families of the four members of her entourage who traveled with her, Billboard has learned.
"Defendants are challenging the lawsuit on procedural grounds rather than dealing with the tragic loss of life that resulted from the crash of their poorly maintained and improperly operated 43-year old Learjet," Paul Kiesel of L.A. firm Kiesel + Larson LLP informed Billboard.
Filed a month after the Dec. 9 crash in California Superior Court in Los Angeles County, the complaint cites negligence by charter company Starwood Enterprises, that company’s owner, and the plane’s previous owner, seeking punitive damages in the deaths of publicist Arturo Rivera, makeup artist Jacobo Yebale, hairstylist Jorge Armando Sanchez Vasquez (known as "Gigi"), and attorney Mario Macias Pacheco. The filing asks for a jury trial to determine damages.
Starwood, Rodatz Financial Group, which owns and manages Starwood, and McOCO, Inc., which owned the Learjet from 1981-2012, are named as defendants. Jenni Rivera Enterprises, which booked the plane for the tragic flight, is also listed as a defendant in the case, although punitive damages are not sought.
According to Kiesel, representatives of McOCO claim the company is not subject to jurisdiction in California and is seeking to have the lawsuit quashed, or set aside. He said the motion to quash was scheduled to be heard by a judge on Sept. 6. For its part, Kiesel noted, Starwood claims that the action should be dismissed and re-filed in Mexico, where the plane went down.
"Regardless that it was in Mexican air space, [the plane] was registered in this country," Kiesel said at a press conference when announcing the lawsuit last January. Kiesel and fellow lawyer Vance J. Owen said at the time that they had information that the plane had departed Van Nuys airport for Mexico before the fatal flight.
The complaint specifies that Starwood, whose primary address is in Nevada, was licensed in California, and alleges that Rodatz and McOCO did a "substantial" amount of business in the State. Representatives of those companies could not immediately be reached for comment.
A separate lawsuit filed in March on behalf of Isabel Carrero Gomez, the widow of the plane’s 78-year-old pilot, against the aircraft’s various owners, is being similarly challenged by Starwood and its operations manager, Christian E. Esquino, according to court documents and Gomez’s attorney, Thomas M. Dempsey.
"They’ve taken position of denying responsibility for anything," Dempsey said by phone from his Beverly Hills office. "They are denying responsibility for the death of Jenni Rivera or anyone else."
Dempsey added that the separate lawsuits related to the crash had been consolidated by the court, and the motions would be heard by the same judge. He added that despite the current obstacles, another lawsuit against the charter company and plane’s owners could soon be filed.
"We anticipate a lawsuit on behalf ofJenni Rivera herself," he said.
Anthony R. Lopez, a Beverly Hills attorney who represents Jenni Rivera Enterprises said he could not comment on any current legal actions surrounding the crash.
After the accident, Federal Aviation Administration records showed that the pilot, Miguel Perez Soto, was not licensed in the United States to carry passengers on a commercial flight. His license was also restricted to visual flight rules (VFR) only – meaning he was not authorized for the instrument-controlled flying that can be necessary when skies are not clear. The plane was at an instrumental flying altitude when it went down. The Mexican Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) posted on its website after the accident that Pérez Soto and his co-pilot, 20-year-old Alejandro Torres were both licensed to fly in Mexico at the time of the flight.
According to Dempsey, "Nothing has surfaced that would indicate any limitation of his ability that would have contributed to the crash." He contested Esquino’s comments to the L.A. Times made after the crash that the pilot could have suffered a heart attack, saying that had been "ruled out." Revelations about Esquino’s past, including convictions on tax evasion and forging aviation logbooks, surfaced in numerous media reports after the crash.
"We are going through the task of trying to determine the cause of the accident," Dempsey said. "Both the Mexican and U.S. governments are doing an intensive investigation of the plane itself." He added that he was expecting the National Transportation Safety Board to release information about its investigation soon.
The lawsuit brought on behalf of the singer’s four companions also points to the Learjet 25’s "long history of maintenance problems." In 2005, when owned by McOCO, the plane’s wing was damaged in a runway accident at Amarillo Airport.
Court papers accused the defendants of having ". . . actual knowledge that the 43-year-old Learjet was not in safe condition to fly, and had suffered prior significant damage, had been insufficiently inspected, repaired and maintained, and was not airworthy, and was dangerous to operate."
The complaint accuses the defendants of "conscious disregard for the safety of others."
"Normally, planes do not fall out of the sky," attorney Paul Kiesel of L.A. firm Kiesel + Larson LLP told Billboard. "You have to ask, 'why did this happen?'"