Widows of Navy Pilots File Lawsuit over 2013 Fatal Incident at Sea

The families of two Navy pilots killed in a September 2013 incident at sea are suing the Navy, the Veterans Affairs Department, the ship captain and a list of companies.

The case was filed in federal U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, on Friday.

It asks the court to require the Navy to prevent conditions like those that killed Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones and Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Gibson, who were lost when a wall of ocean water hit the destroyer William P. Lawrence in the Red Sea.

Jones and Gibson had just landed their MH-60 helicopter on the San Diego destroyer when the water broke the chains attaching it to the flight deck. The aircraft and its pilots were washed overboard.

The two men’s bodies were never recovered.

The lawsuit also names three ship companies for product liability.

It accuses Bath Iron Works and Gibbs & Cox of designing a ship that was unsafe because the stern sits too low in the water, something called “low freeboard.”

Shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls is called out for manufacturing the destroyer, which is a 2009 Flight IIA variant of the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers.

A Navy investigation found that while ship captain Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur, followed guidelines for ship handling, she deserved partial blame for not using better judgment in rough sea conditions.

But it also acknowledged that the Navy needed to address the long-standing issue of the ship’s design and water intrusion.

Since the fatal incident, the Navy has retrained ship crews on handling helicopter landings at sea.

While the so-called Feres doctrine protects the U.S. military against lawsuits brought on behalf of fallen service members, lawyers for the families argued this should be a new exception to that rule.

“The Navy’s own failure to correct a well-known, dangerous condition and its collective lack of accountability unreasonably exposed aircrew operating on the flight decks of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to this dangerous condition for dozens of years, and Landon Jones and Jonathan Gibson paid the ultimate price for this hubris,” the lawsuit argues.

“How many more brave men and women must needlessly die before this situation is corrected? Hopefully none.”

Reached late Friday, a Navy spokesman declined to comment as Navy officials were just seeing the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls said the Virginia-based company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Widows Theresa Jones and Christina Gibson filed the suit on behalf of themselves and their young children, Anthony and Hunter Jones and Makaylin and Alexander Gibson.

Jones is also calling out the VA and Prudential Insurance, which administer the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance program.

Landon Jones declined an insurance policy that would have paid $400,000, but lawsuit argues that the VA and the insurance company failed to notify his beneficiaries as required.

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