Attorneys representing the families of the four members of Jenni Rivera's entourage who died with her in a plane crash in Mexico a month ago have filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court in Los Angeles. The case, filed Dec. 10, names Jenni Rivera Enterprises, Starwood Management, the owner of the 43-year old Learjet 25 and Rodatz Financial Group, the financial company which owns and manages Starwood, as well as the plane's previous owner.
"Normally, planes do not fall out of the sky," attorney Paul Kiesel of L.A. firm Kiesel + Larson LLP tells Billboard. "You have to ask, 'why did this happen?"
Make-up artist Jacobo Yebale, attorney Mario Macias Pacheco, publicist Arturo Rivera, and hair stylist Jorge Armando Sanchez Vasquez, known as Gigi, died with Rivera and the plane's two pilots in the early hours of Dec. 9, when the plane nose-dived to the ground from an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet about ten minutes after take off from Monterrey, Mexico, where Rivera gave her last concert.
The complaint cites negligence on the part of the defendants, and asks for a jury trial to determine damages. Vince Owen of Corpus Cristi-based Owen & Associates, another attorney representing the families in the lawsuit, said that he will seek "the maximum" amount of money possible in damages.
Although the accident happened in Mexico, the defendants are based in the U.S. The plane was also registered here.
"Regardless that is was in Mexican air space, it was registered in this country," Kiesel says.
The lawsuit names Arturo Rivera's parents, the widow and 8-year-old son of Macias, Sanchez's mother and Yebale's mother as plaintiff's in the case.
Attorneys representing other members of Yebale's family was filed last week in Cook County court in Chicago, seeking information from Learjet about the plane.
"The difference between Jenni and the four defendants is that they did not charter this flight," Owen said at a press conference in L.A. on Thursday. Kiesel related that it still had not been determined who specifically on Rivera's team had contracted the services of Starwood for the plane. The attorneys did have information that the plane had departed Van Nuys airport for Mexico before the fatal flight.
"Right now there are more questions than answers," Kiesel says.
As Billboard learned days after the accident, Kiesel noted that the pilot of the Learjet was not licensed in the United States to carry passengers on a commercial flight.
Pérez Soto, a Mexican resident, held a U.S. license that was "not valid for the carriage of persons or property for compensation," according to the Federal Aviation Administration's records, accessed by Billboard on the FAA web site. His license was also restricted to visual flight rules (VFR) only -- meaning that 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.
On Thursday Kiesel said that the plane's co-pilot, 20-year-old Alejandro Torres, was "not qualified" to fly a Learjet 25. Both pilots' credentials, he said, raised "substantial concerns." 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 currently licensed to fly in Mexico.
The lawsuit also points to the Learjet 25's "long history of maintenance problems." The plane was owned from 1981 to June 2012 by another company, McOCO, also named as a defendant. In 2005, 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."
After the plane crash, questions were quickly raised about the owner of the plane, Las Vegas-based Starwood Enterprises, and its operations manager, Christian E. Esquino Nuñez.
Esquino has served jail time for forgery and drug trafficking charges related to the aviation company, media outlets reported. Court records examined by Univision News showed that Esquino, also known as Eduardo Nuñez, owes millions in state and federal taxes and has not paid money he owes to the group Los Tigres del Norte.
In 2005, according to those court records, Esquino and his partner Lance Z. Ricotta were convicted by a federal grand jury on charges of "creating false and fictitious logbooks" for six planes. Esquino had purchased the jets from the Mexican government and then sold them to buyers in the United States at higher prices.
CNN uncovered more about Esquino's past, reporting that two civil lawsuits against Starwood accuse the firm of lying about its relationship to him. Insurance firms QBE and Commerce & Industry Insurance Company filed suits this year seeking to rescind its contracts with Starwood.
Also according to CNN, Esquino, under the name Eduardo Nunez, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2002 of falsifying logbooks to obtain airworthiness certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and later deported to Mexico.
Esquino was previously indicted in Florida on drug trafficking charges, CNN revealed. The United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida accused Esquino of providing planes to cocaine smugglers transporting 487 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to South Florida. Esquino pleaded guilty in 1993 to conspiring to conceal from the Internal Revenue Service "the existence, source and transfer of cash," court records show. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
In the interview with the L.A. Times after Rivera's plane crashed, Esquino addressed the incident. He speculated that the pilot, 78-year-old Manuel Perez Soto, suffered a heart attack on board, and that his co-pilot, 20-year-old Alejandro Torres, was too "green" to get the plane back on course.
Nuñez said that Rivera was thinking of purchasing the jet for her private use and the company was therefore allowing her to use it on a promotional basis, without paying a fee, implying that any issue about Pérez Soto piloting a passenger plane would not apply in this case.
At the press conference announcing the families' lawsuit, the attorneys in the lawsuit raised doubts that Rivera was interested in buying a 43-year-old plane.