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Supreme Court upholds ruling over uninsured pilot, damages owed

PIERRE, S.D.  — In a 16-page opinion publicly released last week, the state’s high court found no fault with Circuit Judge Heidi Linngren’s decision regarding how much the owner of an airplane should receive from a would-be buyer who crashed it.

The court ruled Thomas Wright should be paid $131,735.67 for a 1978 Citabria he was trying to sell for $75,000.

Curtis Temple, who had no previous experience as a pilot, decided he wanted to try flying the plane while he decided whether to buy it. He rented the plane from Wright but didn’t get insurance. During one of the subsequent take-offs, the plane crashed with Temple and an experienced training pilot at the controls.

The plane in its wrecked condition was worth between $2,000 and $4,000, according to Wright. He chose to have the plane repaired, at a cost of $79,083.02. Wright then sold the plane to another party for $52,500. Next, he sued Temple.

The monetary decision eventually wound up in the hands of Judge Linngren. She found that Temple owed Wright $72,000 in damages — the original $75,000 listed price minus $3,000 salvage value — plus $2,904.99 in costs and prejudgment interest in the amount of $56,830.68.

Temple appealed, arguing that the judge made the wrong calculation. Temple said Wright was entitled to only $22,500 in damages — that is, the $75,000 listed price minus the $52,500 that Wright received from the sale.

The Supreme Court sided with the judge and Wright. Justice Patricia DeVaney authored the unanimous decision against Temple.

“Here, although the extensive damage to the plane rendered it useless, Wright elected to repair it. Therefore, this case presents a scenario where alternative measures of damages could be considered, and determining which measure is most appropriate is dependent on the particular facts of each case,” Justice DeVaney wrote.

She continued, “Because Wright’s $79,083 repair costs exceeded the diminution in the plane’s value resulting from the crash, the circuit court did not err by declining to apply the cost of repair measure of damages. Instead, the court calculated Wright’s damages by determining the difference between the fair market value of the plane prior to the crash and the salvage value that could have been recouped had the repairs not been undertaken.

“Temple’s suggestion that rather than subtracting the salvage value when calculating the diminution in the plane’s fair market value, the court should have subtracted the $52,500 sale price Wright received for the plane after it was repaired only makes sense when applying the cost of repair measure of damages. This measure must include compensation not only for the diminution in value after repair but also the amount reasonably expended for the repair. In the case at hand, such a calculation would result in a higher damages award than the one Temple is challenging in this appeal,” the justice concluded.

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