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Suits Filed in Singer's Crash

Courts: Families of two victims who died in the plane tragedy that killed rising star Aaliyah blame Virgin Records' travel arrangements.

February 28, 2002|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The families of two hairstylists who died last summer with rising R&B singer and movie actress Aaliyah in a plane crash sued Virgin Records for wrongful death Wednesday, accusing the label of cutting travel costs with tragic results.

At a news conference in front of the civil courthouse, attorney Brian Panish charged that nine people died needlessly because Virgin "put profits over people" and hired a "fly-by-night" charter company to take Aaliyah, 22, and her entourage to Florida after shooting her "Rock the Boat" video in the Bahamas. The suits are believed to be the first filed on behalf of family members of the crash victims.

Anthony Dodd, 34, and Eric Forman, 29, best friends since boyhood, died after the overloaded twin-engine Cessna 402-B crashed on takeoff Aug. 25 in the Bahamas. Forman was killed almost instantly, while Dodd survived until the next day, Panish said.

He alleged that the label "did not spend the appropriate amount of money to transport the people working on this video." He added, "Do you think that type of transportation would have been provided for Madonna?"

Nearly identical lawsuits filed on behalf of Dodd's and Forman's families in Los Angeles County Superior Court seek unspecified damages from Virgin Records America Inc. (owned by the EMI Group), Blackhawk International Airways Inc., and several video production companies. All, according to the suit, were involved in making the travel arrangements or shooting the video. None had any immediate comment.

The lawsuits allege negligence in "the inadequate travel planning, in the limited budget allotted to the travel plans, in the decision to charter only one plane, in the selection of this particular charter, [and] in the decision to allow the plane to take off in its grossly overloaded state."

Posthumously, Aaliyah's star remains bright. Her film "Queen of the Damned" opened tops at the box office last weekend, grossing $14.8 million, and the "Rock the Boat" song and video are receiving heavy play.

"The Virgin recording group is quick to profit from Aaliyah's record and video, yet won't provide information to the families. We want to know what they're hiding before any other senseless deaths occur," said Panish, who represents Dodd's mother, Jacqueline Manuel, and Forman's mother, sister and father--Mae Lois Williams, Sondra Williams and Gilbert Forman. Mae Lois Williams is incapacitated by a stroke and the family relied on Eric Forman to help care for her, court papers say.

Forman's brother, Charles Henderson, said the family has been "devastated" by his death, and by Dodd's.

"These kids were young, vibrant, at the top of their game," he said, adding that Forman had also worked with Jennifer Lopez. "We don't understand how such a tragedy could have taken their lives from us," Henderson said. "No one had to die on that plane."

Panish said a Federal Aviation Administration investigation revealed that the weight of the nine passengers exceeded flight safety standards even without their luggage and gear. And, he said, the FBI and FAA suspect that the charter company, hired by Virgin's video makers, falsified maintenance and aviation logs and lied to investigators.

The lawyer alleged Blackhawk had been cited four times in the previous four years, including for failing to test employees for drug use. It since has surrendered its operating license to the FAA and gone out of business. The pilot of the doomed Cessna was not authorized to fly the plane and had pleaded guilty 12 days earlier to cocaine possession in a Florida court.

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