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Family seeks $56 million after San Diego jet crash

By Julie Watson
Associated Press / December 14, 2011
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SAN DIEGO—The U.S. government should pay $56 million to a family that lost four members when a military jet crashed into their San Diego home in 2008, an attorney told a judge Wednesday.

"The magnitude of the loss is tremendous," attorney Brian Panish said during closing arguments of a federal trial over the damages caused by the accident the Marine Corps has blamed on multiple mistakes.

The case is unique because the federal government has acknowledged responsibility but is disputing how much money should be given to the extended family for the death of two children, their mother and grandmother.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller will make the final decision but did not say after closing arguments ended when he would issue his ruling.

Department of Justice attorneys put the economic losses based largely on the future income of the mother at roughly $1 million. They left it up to Miller to decide how much to give the family for the loss of love and companionship.

The victims cannot seek compensation for grief, suffering or punitive damages.

Panish called for Don Yoon to receive more than $27 million for the emotional and economic loss of his 36-year-old wife, Youngmi Lee Yoon, and their two baby daughters. His mother-in-law also perished in the accident, which set his home ablaze.

He is seeking more than $20 million for the father-in-law for the emotional and economic loss of his wife and his oldest daughter.

During the trial, Panish presented testimony of relatives and photographs to depict a close-knit family originating in a small Korean farming community, where Youngmi's mother, Seokim Kim Lee, was the pillar, taking care of people in her village and her four children, along with her husband, a cattle farmer.

Youngmi came to the United States in 2004 to marry Yoon.

In video clips taken in Korea, their baby daughter, Grace, is shown playing with Seokim Kim Lee and her husband in a living room filled with their large family.

One by one, the three remaining adult Lee children have testified how their mother's death shattered their lives. Panish is seeking $2.5 million for each one of them, and $1 million for their 89-year-old great grandmother, whom their mother took care of before she was killed. The elder woman died last year.

Recordings of conversations between the Marine pilot and the military ground crews show the pilot was advised to make a potentially safer landing at a nearby Navy base over open water rather than head toward Miramar Air Station over the populated city.

Family members have had to testify mostly through an interpreter and explain the cultural nuances in describing their relationships.

Yoon described hugging his wife, Youngmi, and telling her he loved her that morning before heading to work at his sister's business.

In court filings, Panish pointed out cases in which he has won multi-million dollar awards for families who have lost loved ones in accidents caused by companies or government entities.

He also noted a case in which San Diego Gas & Electric Co. awarded $55.6 million to the heirs of four U.S. Marines who died in a 2004 accident when their helicopters crashed into power lines at Camp Pendleton.

Department of Justice attorneys say those cases are some of the highest claims awarded in California and do not fairly represent this kind of case.

Department of Justice attorneys offered their condolences to the family but have raised doubts about how close they were and how much they depended on each other.

On Monday, they questioned Yoon's father-in-law, Sanghyun Lee, about why he had not visited his eldest daughter in the four years she was in the United States and why he missed her wedding in Las Vegas.

He said the couple planned to hold a bigger wedding in Korea with the entire family.

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