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PSA Crash Liability Case May Hinge on Airport Security

June 05, 1989|ERIC MALNIC | Times Staff Writer

A former supervisor turned down David A. Burke's request to be rehired about two hours before Burke shot the supervisor as part of an on-board attack blamed for the crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner near Paso Robles in December, 1987, according to court records and a key attorney involved in the case.

These documents and interviews with the lawyer offer the most detailed account to date of what apparently motivated Burke to open fire aboard the plane. Major testimony is scheduled to begin this week in the massive civil liability trial resulting from the crash.

Pretrial briefs indicate that the trial, expected to last several months, will include detailed accounts of Burke's troubled life and his successful plan to elude PSA's passenger screening system at Los Angeles International Airport and smuggle a gun onto the plane.

Meeting in Office

Trial briefs filed in Los Angeles Superior Court state that Burke, 35, who had been accused of theft and fired from his job as a USAir ticket agent by Raymond Thomson, walked into Thomson's office at the Los Angeles airport about 2 p.m. on Dec. 9, 1987, to ask for his old job back.

Thomson, 48, a station manager for USAir, the parent company that later acquired PSA, took six pages of meticulous notes during the half-hour meeting with his former subordinate, according to Gerald Sterns, a member of the legal team representing plaintiffs in 35 cases consolidated for the trail.

"Burke told him he wanted his job back," Sterns said. "Burke said he wanted counseling for drug and alcohol problems. Said he would trade grievances that he had filed (against USAir) for dropping the (theft) charges. Thomson said no, but he would take up the rehabilitation matter with a supervisor."

A few minutes later, both men left the office, separately, to take Flight 1771 to San Francisco, according to the trial briefs and Sterns.

"A secretary said Burke looked confident, almost arrogant, when he walked out at about 2:30," Sterns said. "The secretary said Thomson looked red-faced, upset."

About an hour later, PSA flight 1771 took off for San Francisco with 43 aboard, among them Burke and Thomson.

While evidence is fragmentary because of the force of the crash, there is general agreement about what happened aboard Flight 1771. The National Transportation Safety Board, the FBI and lawyers who have studied the incident have all concluded that sometime after takeoff, Burke shot Thomson in an act of revenge for being fired.

Investigators agree that Burke then invaded the cockpit and attacked the pilot and co-pilot with a pistol. The attack apparently caused the cockpit crew to slump over the controls, sending the plane into a steep dive that exceeded the speed of sound on impact. The crash killed all those on board who were not already dead.

The arguments that remain--and tens of millions of dollars hang in the balance--center around the question of how Burke was able to smuggle that pistol, a massive and powerful weapon known in some circles as a "Dirty Harry," onto the plane.

Defendants in the trial asked Judge Jack T. Ryburn to close portions of the trial to the public and news media, arguing that air safety could be jeopardized if the screening procedures were made public.

Sterns responded that discussion of the procedures in effect in December, 1987, would not affect public safety, since the Federal Aviation Administration changed security procedures as a result of the incident.

Sensitive Issues

Ryburn said last week he is committed to keeping the trial open, but would consider closing the courtroom if sensitive material is to be discussed.

The defendants in the complex case are the Los Angeles Department of Airports, through whose buildings Burke allegedly smuggled the .44 magnum revolver; the Ogden Allied Security Co., which PSA paid to handle the passenger screening services at the terminal from which Flight 1171 departed; PSA and USAir.

The defendants have counter-sued Burke's estate, arguing that the crash was a criminal act that cannot be blamed on the airlines, the security company or the City of Los Angeles.

While the question of blame is sure to be a matter of some debate in the trial, FAA regulations stipulate that airport passenger and luggage screening is the responsibility of the individual airlines.

No one is willing to say precisely how much in damages is being sought or has already been received by the plaintiffs. But Sterns said all but "about a dozen" of the 35 civil liability cases consolidated for trial have been settled out of court.

Sterns said the the U.S. Aviation Insurance Group, which insures most carriers against the sorts of losses incurred in air crashes, has paid amounts "well up into seven figures" in the individual cases. The insurance company has declined comment. The Times was unable to elicit comment from attorneys for the defendants.

Troubled Man

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