Godfrey Wins $2.9M Verdict In Hangar Collapse Case
Denver jury finds in favor of local dealer of Pilatus, Piper and Global Express jet parts and aircraft following the collapse of a hangar roof.
September 29, 2017
Following a 5-day trial, a Denver jury awarded $2.92 million dollars to the the local dealer of Piper and Pilatus Aircraft against the landlord from which it leased commercial hangar space following a partial collapse of the roof of one of the hangars in August of 2015. The roof collapsed due to the weight of a substantial amount of water that had pooled on the roof. The case was complex and involved issues of mechanical engineering, hydrostatics and commercial aircraft parts valuation. With interest, the judgment entered by the court should approach $3.5 million.
The plaintiff was represented by Denver attorney Brett Godfrey, who has nearly 100 jury trials, and is a former Air Force pilot as well as a chemical engineer. His trial team included Aaron Bakken and Karen Porter, both of whom have assisted Godfrey in other complex, high-stakes trials.
Godfrey, who specializes in litigation of complex, high-stakes cases involving engineering, biotechnology, medicine and complex corporate finance. represents both the defendants and plaintiffs in commercial litigation and insurance disputes and he has extensive experience in litigating steel building collapses.
Several years ago, Godfrey obtained nearly $15 million for Larimer County, Colorado, based upon defects in similar large steel buildings that the county used for agricultural events at The Ranch, which is where the Budweiser Events Center is located.
Law Week Colorado declared him “Best Construction Defect Lawyer” for defendants in 2016 and again in 2017. In 2015, the publication declared him the “Best Commercial Litigator” in Colorado.
The verdict entered by the jury was for the exact amount sought by Godfrey in his closing statement at trial. The jury deliberated for less than two hours before returning its verdict.
“Interestingly, one of the six jurors who decided the case was himself a practicing appellate lawyer. Another juror was an expert in financial and investment operations,” Godfrey observed. “We had a very smart jury, which is probably why their deliberations took an unusually short time for a verdict of this size.”
Catastrophic Roof Failure
“The hangar roof is more than 70,000 square feet in area,” Godfrey said, “and when you have that kind of surface area collecting water, the weight is tremendous, but is supported only by a limited number of steel components that make up a pre-engineered metal building system.”
When the roof failed, thousands of gallons of water poured into the hangar and doused several cabinets containing valuable aircraft components and parts. The collapse occurred during a particularly heavy afternoon thunderstorm. Employees first noticed water trickling down from various parts of the roof, and moments later heard a loud bang, which some initially thought was caused by an impact of some sort, such as a part falling from an aircraft in the traffic pattern at the airport.
Aircraft used by US Special Forces
Many of the parts were rare and hard-to-find components used in a variant of the Global Express jet that is used by United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) for Special Warfare Operations, including electronic surveillance and transport of Tier One Special Forces (such as Navy SEALS and Delta operators) in the mideast, Afghanistan and other hot-spots around the world. Oprah Winfrey also owns a jet of the same type.
The plaintiff in the suit, Orion Air Group Holdings, LLC, brought the suit as the tenant on a commercial lease with the defendants, Arapahoe Joint Venture #1 and Arapahoe Airplaza JV #1, on behalf of an affiliated entity, Tempus Aircraft Sales and Service (TASS), which was the actual owner of the parts that were being stored in hangar space leased by Orion at the time of the collapse.
The complaint filed by Godfrey contained a single claim against the landlord: premises liability under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act, which has been amended many times by the Colorado General Assembly since its passage in the 1990s.
When the Premises Liability Act was first enacted, Godfrey was the first lawyer in Colorado to publish an article in a monthly legal magazine to discuss what was then a new statute. That version of the Act was declared unconstitutional in the early 1990s and was replaced by an earlier version of the statute under which Orion brought its claim against its landlord.
Under the act, a tenant suing a landlord for a dangerous condition on leased property must show that the landlord either created the dangerous condition and failed to warn the tenant about it, or that the landlord had actual knowledge of the condition and did not use reasonable care in light of that knowledge.
Orion claimed that the Arapahoe defendants had actual knowledge of the fact that the roof was structurally unsound and that the drainage systems of the structure were chronically clogged by pine straw deposited on the roof by large old pine trees that were situated near one corner of the building. Plaintiffs had asked the Arapahoe defendants, through their management company, Aviation Property Management, to trim the trees back or cut them down and to perform more thorough maintenance of the system to prevent repeated water intrusions into the hangar space.
The defendants denied that they knew anything was wrong with the hangar, even though their property manager admitted that the complaints had been made throughout the summer months of 2015 and leading up to the collapse. The defendants also asserted that the parts, or at least many of them, had not actually been damaged by water and that the plaintiffs could not prove which parts were actually unusable due to water because most of the parts had not been tested following the collapse. Federal Aviation Regulations contemplate that parts that are suspected of damage can be re-certified for use on aircraft, but the process can be expensive and the results of such testing can be unpredictable.
The plaintiffs were reluctant to repair, re-certify and sell the parts, because of the stigma that comes with parts that have a documented incident history, which could lead to significant liability in the event of an air disaster involving an aircraft equipped with such parts. Unlike auto parts, aircraft parts are accompanied by documentation of their history “from birth onward.” For that reason, none of the parts had been returned to service. On that basis, the defense argued that the plaintiff had failed to mitigate its damages, but the court agreed that the plaintiff, which did not actually own the parts, was not in a position to exercise decision-making authority regarding the disposition of the parts, and struck that affirmative defense.
During trial, the plaintiffs offered testimony from an expert in mechanical engineering, who discussed deficiencies in the hangar’s drainage systems and forensic signs of inadequate maintenance that were present after the hangar collapsed. The plaintiffs also offered expert testimony from an expert in aircraft parts to testify that the parts were unusable despite an available re-certification processes; this expert also testified that due to exposure to water and high humidity, the parts were all unusable.
The defense called an arborist (a tree expert) as its only expert witness, who asserted that the pine needles found on the hangar floor and the roof had been jarred loose by the very storm that collapsed the hangar, and that the pine straw was new and had not accumulated over time as Godfrey contended.
In response, Godfrey projected high-resolution photos from an iPad onto a large screen with a special projector to prove that the color of the needles was consistent with age and long-term accumulation, supporting his claim that the landlord and the management company had chronically failed to perform thorough cleaning of the gutters to keep the drainage systems working.
The Yellow Brick Road
The defense attorney—an experienced aviation lawyer—proclaimed in her opening statement that the evidence outlined by Godfrey in his opening statement was a “yellow brick road” and that the jury should not follow it.
In his closing argument, Godfrey asserted that “every brick in that road is paved with evidence, and I want you to stay on it until you reach the truth—pull back the curtain and you’ll find that Oz is not a good landlord.”