SAN DIEGO (AP) — Don Yoon wiped his eyes and struggled to speak on the witness stand as his lawyers showed him a handful of family photos — the only items firefighters were able to salvage from his home after a U.S. military jet crashed into it, setting it ablaze. His 36-year-old wife, two baby daughters and mother-in-law all perished.
Yoon shared his pain during the second day of a trial to determine how much the U.S. government should award his extended family to compensate for the Dec. 8, 2008, accident that the Marine Corps has acknowledged was caused by multiple mistakes. Closing arguments were scheduled Wednesday.
Yoon burst into tears as soon as he took the witness stand and was asked to state Tuesday's date. It was exactly three years since he buried his wife in the same casket with his baby daughters.
"All we wanted was to grow old and raise babies," said Yoon, a Korean immigrant who came to California at the age of 18 to pursue a better life. "And now everything is gone. I know I'm going to be with them when my time comes. That's the only thing I'm looking forward to."
The case went to court after talks broke down over the undisclosed amount being sought by the family.
The situation is rare because the Marine Corps has said it was responsible. But the Department of Justice is disputing the amount of money that should be awarded. In most wrongful death cases, the government also disputes claims that it was responsible, legal experts say.
"There are very few if any cases like this," said attorney Kevin Boyle, who is representing the families.
Boyle said there was no doubt the military was at fault. 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.
Government attorneys declined to comment. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller will have the final say on compensation for the family.
California law does not allow victims in such cases to seek money for grief, suffering or punitive damages. Instead, both sides in the case face the difficult task of quantifying not only the future incomes of those who died — based in part on their life expectancies — but the worth of the love and compassion the deceased had for surviving family members.
Making it more challenging, lawyers say, is the fact that this case involves a Korean immigrant family stretching across two continents. 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 store. Yoon broke down sobbing, and his attorney Brian Panish withdrew his question asking him to recall how he heard the tragic news that day.
The government has put economic losses at less than $1 million and not given a figure for non-economic losses. The family's lawyers say Youngmi Lee's earnings would have topped $2 million had she lived.
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 pointed out 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.
During this week's trial, Panish has used testimony of the family and photographs to depict a close-knit family originating from a small Korean farming community, where Youngmi's mother, Seokim Kim Lee, was the pillar, taking care of those in her village and her four children, along with her husband, a cattle farmer.
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, leaving them feeling lost.
Jun Hwa Lee, 34, said his mother was No. 1 on his phone's speed dial so he could talk to her quickly about anything. He recalled returning to his village almost every weekend after he moved away for a job and always found his home filled with flowers and food. His father now eats out and is so depressed he spends his days wandering the home in a daze, no longer tending to his cattle, he said.
"My mom was the most important person in my life," he said. "She was the person I loved most, and still is."
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.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
This is a story update. The previous story is below.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Lawyers for an extended family that lost four members when a military jet crashed into their San Diego home in 2008 said Monday they will be seeking millions of dollars for the accident that the Marine Corps acknowledged was caused by a string of errors.
Attorney Kevin Boyle told The Associated Press outside the federal courthouse that the Yoon and Lee families turned to the court system after the Justice Department in private negotiations offered "insulting" amounts to compensate for the deaths of two children, their mother and grandmother.
U.S. District Judge Jeffery Miller will have the final say on the issue at the end of the two-day trial, which began Monday.
"The government has offered pennies on the dollar compared to what a jury would give," Boyle said.
Boyle would not specify yet how much the families want nor state the amount offered so far by the federal government.
Don Yoon lost his 36-year-old wife, Youngmi Lee Yoon; his 15-month-old daughter, Grace; his 2-month-old daughter, Rachel; and his 59-year-old mother-in-law, Seokim Kim Lee, who was visiting from Korea to help her eldest daughter take care of their children.
Yoon and his father-in-law are plaintiffs in the case. Their lawyers have filed court documents pointing out other cases in which families have received tens of millions of dollars from the government for the wrongful deaths of loved ones.
Sanghyun Lee took the stand Monday, testifying that his life was destroyed the day he got the call from Yoon's mother, who told him "the whole family died."
"I lost everything," said Lee, a cattle rancher who has been unable to work in the three years since the crash. "I cannot do anything now."
Asked if he and his wife of 37 years had plans, the soft-spoken man raised his voice and stared straight at the government attorneys and a Marine Corps counsel: "I did but you as a Navy took all my dreams away."
Department of Justice attorney Bruce Ross told the federal judge the government is not seeking a "discount" on the tragedy as alleged by the family's attorneys but rather wants the amount to be fair.
"There's no question here that the eligible heirs are entitled to a just and reasonable compensation," Ross said after offering his condolences to the family, many of whom flew in from Korea to testify at the trial.
The Marine Corps has said the plane suffered a mechanical failure but a series of bad decisions led the pilot — a student — to bypass a potentially safe landing at a coastal Navy base after his engine failed on Dec. 8, 2008.
The pilot ejected and told investigators he screamed in horror as he watched the jet plow into the San Diego neighborhood, incinerating two homes.
Government attorneys are questioning how close Lee was to his daughter, pointing out that he had not visited her in four years in the United States and did not go to her wedding. They also doubt the plaintiffs' calculations on the economic loss.
The government has put the economic loss at $955,348 and has not revealed its amount for the non-economic damage. Lawyers for the family say Youngmi Lee's future income and her work at home would have been worth more than $2 million. She worked at a San Diego convalescent home but was trained as a nurse and planned to get a job in her field after the legal U.S. resident mastered English.
Justice Department attorneys raised doubts her salary would have doubled in two years as claimed by the family.
The government also is asking for receipts or other proof of property lost when the home burned to the ground.
The family's attorneys said Mr. Yoon was left with only a cardboard box of old photos rescued by firefighters. Yoon is expected to take the stand Tuesday.
The military disciplined 13 members of the Marines and the Navy for the errors. Low oil pressure killed the jet's first engine, and the second died when fuel stopped flowing from the tank.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.