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Heather Johnson; Robert Johnson v. United States of America

November 13, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jeffrey T. Miller United States District Judge


On December 8, 2008, a United States Marine Corps F/A 18D Hornet fighter jet crashed into the San Diego residential community know as University City. The crash, which was widely publicized at the time, resulted in several deaths suffered by one family*fn1 and substantial property damage to a number of homes in the area.

Due to the negligence of military personnel, the United States admitted sole liability for the crash. In this case, plaintiffs are Robert and Heather Johnson, father and daughter, who were in their University City home, located on Huggins Street, at the time of the crash. Aircraft debris, including a jet engine, rained down on their home and front yard. Shocked by this event, plaintiffs fled from the rear of their home to a neighbor's house nearby.

Both Plaintiffs suffered from smoke inhalation and were transported to a hospital where they were each evaluated and released when it was determined no physical injuries, aside from the inhalation of smoke and fumes, were sustained.

The parties have represented that economic damages have been resolved*fn2 and that the sole issue before the court is the amount of reasonable compensation to be awarded to each of the plaintiffs for their respective post-traumatic emotional injuries.

A three-day bench trial pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§2671 -2680 began on October 9, 2012 and concluded on October 11, 2012 with the arguments of the parties. Plaintiffs have requested damages of $350,000 for Heather Johnson and $300,000 for Robert Johnson, while the government contends an award in the "tens of thousands of dollars," would be reasonable.

After consideration of all the evidence from the parties, as well as the relevant law and arguments, the court issues the following Statement of Decision.

Evidentiary Record

The following summarizes the testimony of the witnesses:

The Plaintiffs

A. Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson, a 57 year old gentleman with substantial experience in inventory management, was unemployed at the time of the accident, actively seeking employment, and engaged in volunteer activities principally with the Navy and Coast Guard.

As Mr. Johnson was talking to his daughter, Heather, in the family living room, he heard two impacts and observed flaming wreckage roll past the front of the house, some of which collided into Heather's vehicle. Mr. Johnson grabbed Heather and they retreated out the rear of the home while debris struck the home. As Mr. Johnson was retreating, he observed the Yoon home nearby engulfed in flames, and could feel the heat emitted from the crash. As he and Heather ran from the scene to a neighbor's home down the street, Mr. Johnson's lungs hurt from the smoke.

After leaving his daugher with a neighbor, Mr. Johnsn then went to the home of his mother-inlaw, located across the street from his own home, to check on her well-being. Thereafter, Mr. Johnson considered checking on the jet engine, which he initially thought was the aircraft's cockpit, but realized he could do nothing to assist any victims including any occupants of the Yoon residence.

Mr. Johnson returned to his daughter's location and eventually he and Heather were transported to an area hospital for evaluation and treatment. Mr. Johnson suffered lung pain which gradually dissipated over a few weeks. Mr. Johnson testified that he was emotionally shaken over the traumatic experience and felt he "didn't do enough because people didn't survive".

Over time, Mr. Johnson has suffered from sleep interruption, and recurring dreams and visions. He relives the trauma during sleep as he views the crash "from different perspectives". Mr. Johnson still suffers from some symptoms, including intrusive recollections. His relationship with his wife has suffered as they talk less, and he currently feels he is on a "plateau" with less energy than before and "fatigue from the anxiety."

After the crash in 2009, Mr. Johnson was able to return to work and has since been employed and has continued with his volunteer activities. With respect to his daughter, Heather, Mr. Johnson feels she is getting her life back together, but still relives the event and is "pretty jumpy."

At one point, in 2010, Mr. Johnson decided to seek counseling because he was "jumpy" and "upset". Intellectually, Mr. Johnson knew he was not at fault for being unable to help others, and this point was highlighted by the licensed ...

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