Earlier this year I wrote a post about the media coverage surrounding Joan and Trixie’s 1965 plane crash. Since then, I decided that I wanted to try and figure out what lawsuits were filed following the crash, and learn (for the record) what was ultimately concluded?
With help from the archives division at the Los Angeles Superior Court, over the course of months I was able to uncover a few stacks of documents pertaining to old legal cases. After sorting through notes, filings, depositions, statements, motions, claims, and so on, I’ve whittled it down to this.
- On February 7, 1966 Marvin G. Smith filed a Wrongful Death Complaint (the first document filed in court to initiate a lawsuit) against Rajay Corporation, V.E. Kuster Company Inc., Cessna Aircraft Company, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Sales and Service Company, and Banning Aviation Company for $500,000 ($4.6 million in 2022 dollars).
- On February 15, 1966 a Complaint on insurance policy was filed between Delwyn G. Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
- On April 25, 1967 Delwyn G. Schubert et al filed a Proposed First Amended Complaint (wrongful death) against the same entities as Marvin G. Smith for $1,000,0000 (roughly $9 million in 2022 dollars).
- Some time later (presumably), V.E. Kuster Co., Inc. filed an undated Cross Complaint against Rajay Corporation, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Propeller sales and Service Company, Banning Aviation, Inc.
- On May 12, 1967 a Notice of Ruling was filed with plaintiffs listed as Delwyn Schubert and Marvin G. Smith, and cross-complainant V.E. Kuster, whereby it was stated that the defendants had 15 days from receipt of Notice of Ruling to answer plaintiffs’ first amended complaint.
- On February 27, 1968, the deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay was taken.
- On October 21, 1968 a Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trail was filed in a case between Delwyn Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
- On November 21, 1968 the deposition of Delwyn Schubert was taken.
- On December 10, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Marvin G. Smith, Jr. and Rajay Corporation et al.
- On December 24, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Delwyn Schubert and Mutual Life Insurance Company.
While I’m undoubtedly missing other documents, to summarize, it looks to me like Jack Smith and Delwyn Schubert each sued the same six entities for negligence , and that Delwyn also sued the life insurance company following Joan and Trixie’s deaths.
In the deposition given by Delwyn Schubert for the life insurance case, I came across a particular point that I found interesting when Delwyn stated that Jack felt the cause of the plane crash to be mechanical. He said:
Q: Do you recall any statement which he made to you or which, obviously he made in your presence about the crash?
A: Yes. Of course we talked about every aspect of it, as you can well imagine, and he felt very positive that it was due to mechanical failure of some sort.
Similarly, from the October 21, 1968 Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trial (relating to the Mutual Life Insurance case), Delwyn’s attorney John E. Sweeney declared:
“Lt. Cdr. M.G. Smith, Jr. is a key witness for the trial of this case. He has been on a Navy cruise for several months presently … Lt. Cdr. Smith is an extremely important witness in this case. He has first hand knowledge of many of the specific details in issue in this case. He has uniquely qualified both from the standpoint of his expertise as a long time Navy pilot as well as his position as a percipient witness to many of the facts in issue.”
Based on these statements, it surely seems as though Jack would have had a good idea about what happened to Joan’s plane based on his own expertise with planes. If he assumed mechanical failure, why was his case dismissed? The paperwork I have doesn’t specify.
While I don’t have a formal notice of Delwyn Schubert’s negligence/wrongful death case being formally dismissed, I do know that Delwyn’s Mutual Life Insurance case was settled out of court. Initially in the Mutual Life Insurance case, the life insurance company deemed that Trixie’s death was not covered under her life insurance policy because she was a passenger in a non-commercial plane. From an October 1965 letter from Mutual Life Insurance to Delwyn’s attorney:
“We are sorry to have to inform you that we will be unable to honor your request for payment for accidental loss of life under the contract. If you will refer to the contract, you will note that the policy does not cover any loss resulting from, any kind of aircraft, except riding as a passenger in an aircraft then being operated (i) commercially to transport passengers for hire or (ii) by a private business organization to transport its personnel or guests.”
Challenging this definition as to whether or not Trixie qualified as “crew” on a plane operated by a private business organization explains (in part) why Rajay Inc. provided a deposition about the nature of Joan’s arrangement with their company to test turbochargers and how Trixie was involved. An excerpt from the October 1968 deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay Inc. follows below:
Q: Mr. Mastin, did you advise the CAB that Mrs. Schubert was a member of the crew?
A: Technically, yes, as an observer.
Q: All right. There had been a briefing prior to the flight which resulted in the crash, had there not?
Q: Mrs. Schubert was present at the briefing?
A: She was present but not party to it.
Q: She was in the room; is that it?
A: (Witness shakes his head from side to side.)
A: The briefing was conducted at my desk. My desk is in a trailer. She was standing right outside the trailer door.
Q: Who else was present actually, then?
A: Joan Merriam Smith.
Q: Yourself and Joan Merriam Smith?
Q: You were aware that Mrs. Schubert was going to accompany Joan Smith?
While there is still plenty more detail to sort through, for now this information does answer the basic questions of who was sued and why. Of course I’m still curious to learn why the negligence cases were dismissed. Perhaps another post on this topic in the future …