SAN DIEGO — A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the U.S. government to pay $17.8 million to a family that lost four members when a Marine Corps fighter jet crashed into their San Diego home in 2008.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller's ruling came after a nonjury trial between the Department of Justice and the family, who sought $56 million for emotional and monetary loss.
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 said in a statement that Miller's ruling was "thoughtful, reasoned and just." Yoon broke down crying throughout his testimony, which came three years to the day when he buried his wife and baby girls in the same casket. He told the judge he only looks forward to the day when he can join them.
"Our family is relieved this part of the process is over, but no sum of money will ever make up for the loss of our loved ones," he said.
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 neighborhood, incinerating two homes.
The case was unique in that the government admitted liability but disputed how much should be paid to Yoon and his extended family. Government lawyers had put economic losses at about $1 million but left it up to Miller to decide how much should be paid for the loss of love and companionship.
Department of Justice officials declined to comment Wednesday.
During the trial, government attorneys offered their condolences to the family but questioned how much they depended on each other. The law does not allow victims to be compensated for grief, suffering or punitive damages.
The judge said the deaths of the two girls deprived Yoon of "the comfort, companionship, society and love a young child is capable of providing to a new parent and, then, in later life. By all accounts, the Yoon girls would have been raised with traditional cultural and family values emphasizing love and devotion to parents and family."
He ordered Yoon to be awarded about $9.6 million, and his father-in-law, Sanghyun Lee, to be given about $3.7 million. Miller said $1.5 million should go to each of Lee's three adult children for the loss of their mother, Seokim Kim Lee.
In his written ruling, Miller called Seokim Kim Lee an "extraordinary woman whose profound and loving influence greatly molded, directly or indirectly, virtually every plaintiff in this case," after hearing the testimonies of her husband and children, who flew in from Korea to testify.
"And it's that remarkable influence which informs and helps to measure what fair and reasonable compensation should be awarded in this case," Miller wrote.
During the trial, the family's attorney, Brian Panish, showed photographs and videos depicting a close-knit farming family whose lives were shattered on two continents by the crash. Youngmi Lee came to the United States in 2004 to marry Yoon.
Yoon said he harbors no ill will toward the Marine pilot "who did everything he could to prevent this tragedy," but added that his family believes "that misguided attempts by the military to save money and cut costs" contributed to the crash.
"If the cost of paying fair compensation as ordered by this court will be factored into the daily decisions by our military in its operations that affect both military and civilian safety," other families may be saved, the family's statement said.
The military disciplined 13 members of the Marines and the Navy for the errors.