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 on 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 the hospital.
Linda Columbus was the first of the passengers to file a suit in April 2021 in federal district court. Her suit has been 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 recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars from medical bills stemming from injuries they sustained.
The company wants to take the matter in front of a jury. Andrew Breffeilh, the owner of the company, was unavailable for comment.
Unique to the case is the highly educated nature of many of the plaintiffs; the majority are medical doctors or have PhDs.
The latest to file a claim is Dr. Ilya Krayevsky, a New York anesthesiologist who was on the same flight as Columbus with his family. His suit has been consolidated with the other four and all are moving into the discovery phase.
“No trial date has been set,” said Bret King, lawyer for the Wyoming Balloon Company. “That won’t be set until after all of the discovery in the case is completed in about six to eight months.”
The group of people isn’t big enough to invoke class action procedures, King confirmed.
“There are five cases filed,” King said. “That’s pretty easy to manage.”
No decision has been made yet on whether the cases will go to trial, and if they do, whether the trials will be separate or remain consolidated.
“The claims for the damages for the injuries would likely be tried separately,” King said. “What gets consolidated and not will ultimately be up to Judge [Melissa] Owens to decide.”
According to Krayevsky’s court filing, during the balloon’s descent, the basket that was carrying Krayevksy, his family and other passengers struck the ground three times. During the balloon’s second contact with the ground, pilot Richard Lawhorn was ejected from the basket. When the balloon ascended again, pilot-less, Lawhorn yelled to the passengers to “pull the red rope.”
Upon pulling the red rope, the balloon descended rapidly, struck the ground a third time with great force, hit a fence, but then continued moving and dragging across the ground.
Krayevsky is an anesthesiologist residing in New York, and sustained “significant injuries,” according to the complaint.
“[Krayevsky] was out of work for a period of time due to his shoulder injuries,” Krayevsky’s lawyer, Bradley Booke, said. “He is recovering, back at work, but he needs to be pretty careful with his rehabilitation.”
Eleven passengers total were on Lawhorn’s flight: Columbus, Kreyevsky and their families, along with 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 a broken shoulder, among other injuries. Doucet was thrown from the basket and knocked unconscious. Watson was thrown from the balloon basket and was then pinned on her back under the basket and dragged. Her ear was severed from her head, subsequently reattached with surgery, her clavicle shattered, and her sternum fractured.
Gaddy’s complaint said “the immediate aftermath of the balloon crash ... looked like a war zone.”
The pilots of the other two balloons that crashed, Richard Glas and company owner Breffeilh, are also listed as defendants along with John Doe, who piloted a fourth balloon that day. Court documents state that John Doe’s balloon landed safely that morning.
Booke expects the next step in the cases will be the deposition of the balloon pilots.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and 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 soon after it happened and all of those have now filed lawsuits. I suspect the other passengers were either not injured or their injuries are minor. It’s a difficult case for the plaintiffs given that this was a very unexpected weather event, not pilot error and they all signed releases before they flew acknowledging the risks of flying, including unexpected weather events ... but if someone does file later, it’s unlikely their cases would be consolidated with these and would proceed on its own.”