Attorneys recall Marshall crash suits, settlements

By Steve Korris | Dec 8, 2006

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Matthew Fox star as Coach Jack Lengyel and Assistant Coach Red Dawson of the 1971 Marshall University Young Thundering Herd in "We Are Marshall," which premieres this week in Huntington. HUNTINGTON – After 75 people died on a Marshall University football flight in 1970, lawyers rushed to Huntington expecting to strike gold. All they got was a lump of West Virginia coal.

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Matthew Fox star as Coach Jack Lengyel and Assistant Coach Red Dawson of the 1971 Marshall University Young Thundering Herd in "We Are Marshall," which premieres this week in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON – After 75 people died on a Marshall University football flight in 1970, lawyers rushed to Huntington expecting to strike gold.

All they got was a lump of West Virginia coal.

State law limited wrongful death awards to $100,000 plus funeral expenses.

Widows of the crash received $101,000. Orphans divided $101,000.

"It was a horrendous thing," said attorney Harry Hager. "That wrongful death statute was so limiting, especially for people who had many children and high incomes."

Attorney Jim St. Clair said, "I spent weeks trying to figure out some way around it. I really dug into it because I was emotionally involved."

He said, "Of course after this they took the limit off."

In 1970 few states set caps on wrongful death damages, so a lot of lawyers assumed they could win without limit in West Virginia.

Attorney David Lockwood said, "They descended on Huntington and set up temporary offices in the lobby of the Frederick Hotel. They were signing people up as quickly as possible. It was something to behold."

F. Lee Bailey, most famous of all, landed in a private jet.

Lockwood said, "He came in with an entourage, a high rolling type guy."

St. Clair said a female pilot in a James Bond style jump suit flew Bailey's jet. He said Bailey and the pilot flew reporters over the airport.

"He wooed and won them all," St. Clair said.

Local lawyers ignored the commotion.

Attorney Jack Vital said, "The local bar kept a really low profile. We were overwhelmed with grief. The bar behaved quite properly."

One by one the visitors smacked into the $100,000 limit. Such a claim might pay fairly well at a fee of one third, but they knew they would not get a third.

No judge would approve anything near a third, not with orphans and widows trying to live on the meager payouts.

The high rollers cleared out of the Frederick Hotel, leaving to local lawyers the somber business of settling claims with aircraft owner Southern Airways, of Atlanta.

St. Clair took responsibility for the six children of team physician Ray Hagley and wife Shirley Hagley, who died together. The ages of the children ran from four to 13.

St. Clair had known Ray and Shirley since high school.

"Ray earned his way through medical school," St. Clair said. "In summers he sold treats from a bike."

Hagley received no salary as team physician, but he did not need it. At age 35 he made $80,000, the third highest income on the airplane.

If St. Clair settled the claims of both parents at $100,000, he would replace only two and a half years of family income.

The insurer of Southern Airways didn't intend to pay even that much.

St. Clair said an adjuster told him they would pay $100,000 for working males and $50,000 for wives. He said the adjuster told him, "Sign here and take it."

St. Clair said, "I told him, I went through high school with both of them. I won't sign."

St. Clair said, "He told me the others have already taken it. I said this is not a business transaction. This is something near and dear to me."

In May 1971, six months after the crash, lawyers began bringing settlements to Circuit Judge Russell Dunbar.

The cap on damages had cut and dried matters so completely that families did not even file complaints against Southern Airways.

Lawyers for the families alleged negligence in each settlement, but Southern Airways always denied it in the next paragraph.

The firm of Huddleston, Bolen, Beatty, Porter and Copen started the proceedings with four $101,000 settlements.

The first payment went to Donna Moss, widow of assistant coach James M. Moss II.

He earned an annual income of $10,000. He left a two year old daughter.

Dunbar gave two thirds of the proceeds to 20th Street Bank, guardian of the child, and a third to Donna Moss.

The second payment went to Nancy Prestera, widow of Michael Prestera.

It amounted to less than Prestera made in a year. According to the court record he earned $112,000 as an executive with C. I. Witten Transfer.

He left four children, ages 16 to 25.

Dunbar awarded a third of the proceeds to Nancy Prestera and a sixth to each child.

The third payment went to Lucy Kautz, widow of athletic director Charles Kautz.

He earned $16,200. He left three daughters, ages 12 to 22. The record shows no division of proceeds.

The fourth payment went to Martha Carelli, widow of assistant coach Albert Carelli Jr.

He earned $10,000. He left two sons, three years old and ten months old.

Each of the four settlements included a $10,000 fee for the Huddleston firm.

Next, Dunbar approved $101,000 for Genevieve Morehouse, widow of radio announcer Eugene Morehouse.

As university sports information director, he earned $16,756. He left four sons and two daughters, ages 10 to 20.

The settlement included $5,000 for attorney Henry Broh.

The next $101,000 payment went to the family of auto dealer Parker Ward.

He earned $23,762. He left a wife, Mary, and two sons and two daughters from seven months to 12 years old.

Family attorney David Daugherty scratched out the line for his fee.

Other lawyers brought Duncan double death settlements of the kind St. Clair could not stand, with half payment for the wife.

Attorney Edward V. Lee accepted $101,000 for oral surgeon Glenn Preston and $50,000 for wife Phyllis Preston.

Glenn Preston earned $55,523.06. He and Phyllis left three daughters, ages 18 to 22.

Attorney James Barrett accepted $101,000 for doctor Joseph Chambers and $50,000 for wife Margaret.

The doctor earned $30,999.63. They left three daughters, ages 15 to 20.

Hager accepted $101,000 for lumber and construction business owner James Jarrell and $50,000 for wife Cynthia Jarrell.

James Jarrell earned $7,297.71. They left two sons, ages 7 and 11.

The firm of Rife and Frazier accepted $101,000 for physician Herbert Dickerson Proctor and $50,000 for wife Courtney Proctor.

The doctor earned $85,000. They left three daughters and two sons, ages 5 to 20.

Attorney Dennis White accepted $101,000 for insurance agent Charles Arnold and $50,000 for wife Rachel Arnold.

Charles earned $50,000. Rachel earned $5,000 to $10,000 a year working for Charles, but her income didn't boost the recovery.

These five double death settlements, totaling $755,000, generated just $30,000 in legal fees. Dunbar approved $15,000 for Rife and Frazier, and $15,000 for Barrett.

Lee, Hager and White charged nothing.

Attorney Lafe Chafin broke the rule of half payment for wives. He negotiated equal $101,000 settlements for Emmett Heath Jr., and wife Elaine Health.

Unlike other wives, Elaine held a job. She earned $12,000 as a corporate officer. Her husband, a salesman, earned $17,508.

They left two sons and two daughters, ages 12 to 19.

For Chafin, Dunbar approved a pair of $10,000 fees.

Most settlements flashed by Dunbar in three months, but a few needed more time.

The five children of WHTN sportscaster Kenneth Jones required two guardians.

Dunbar named his widow, Lois Jones, guardian of three sons, ages 8 to 15.

Dunbar named Dorothy Ann Finnell guardian of a son and a daughter, 20 and 17, by order of a probate judge in Cincinnati.

Dunbar approved a $101,000 settlement. Jones earned $13,000.

Dunbar split a $10,000 legal fee, giving $7,600 to Rife and Frazier for representing Lois Jones and $2,400 to Daugherty for representing Finnell.

It took a while to decide the price of a football player.

Every college athlete carried $15,000 life insurance through the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The association announced this right after the crash.

Pamela Childers, 19-year-old widow of athlete Roger Childers, thought she deserved more. Attorney Jerald Jones settled her claim for $60,000, minus a $5,000 fee.

A year after the crash, Dunbar approved a $101,000 settlement for Katherine O'Connor, widow of Marshall admissions director Brian O'Connor Jr.

He earned $13,000. He left a son, 6, and a daughter, 5.

The settlement included a $6,400 legal fee for William Matthews.

Next, Dunbar approved $101,000 for Phyllis Loria, widow of assistant coach Frank Loria Jr.

He earned $9,000. He left two daughters and a son, 11 months to four years old.

The settlement included $10,000 for the firm of Preiser, Greene, Hunt and Wilson.

Jim St. Clair continued to insist on full payment for Shirley Hagley. He prepared to sue.

He said, "I found a buddy of Ray that was a TWA pilot. We went to a seminar in New York on crash litigation, a two and a half day seminar. And I said we are going to do it."

For the case he associated his firm, Marshall and St. Clair, with Farrell and Jones of Washington, D. C.

He said he told Southern Airways he was ready. He said, "They told me you can't afford to try an airplane crash for $50,000."

Attorney R. G. McNeer likewise resisted short payment for Helen Ralsten, who died with her husband Murrill Ralsten Jr.

Murrill earned about $20,000 as a retail clothier. Helen did not hold a paying job. They left a son and a daughter, six and four years old.

McNeer settled Murrill's claim for $101,000. It took another month, but McNeer coaxed the insurer all the way up to $90,000 for Helen.

Dunbar approved $15,100 for McNeer's firm.

Persistence also paid off for attorney Stanley James. For Nancy Griffith, widow of football player David Griffith Jr., James settled at $87,500.

David Griffith left a daughter one year old. He worked summers at Houdaille Industries, earning about $800.

Dunbar gave two thirds of the proceeds to Security Bank of Huntington as the child's guardian. He gave a third to Nancy Griffith. He approved $8,750 for James.

At last St. Clair prevailed. In January 1972 Southern Airways and its insurer agreed to pay $101,000 for his claim on Shirley.

He said, "They finally caved in."

He said, "I told them, you are going to go back and pay more than 50 thousand to these other people. I told them if they didn't, I would call these people and tell them they lied to them when they said they would not pay more. And they did it."

He said, "I think they went back and paid them all. That is my understanding."

Dunbar approved $8,500 for St. Clair's firm.

A last little claim popped up from Rife and Frazier at the end of 1972.

For Juanita Blake, mother of football player Michael Blake, the firm presented a $22,000 settlement on behalf of his daughter.

More than two years had passed since the crash, but the statute of limitations did not apply because the child was born after Michael Blake died.

The settlement included $4,000 for Rife and Frazier.

In all, legal fees in Southern Airways settlements added up to about $170,000. Today, 75 crash deaths might generate fees of $170,000,000.

St. Clair, 71, enjoys a different kind of compensation.

"I was proud of being able to be part of that," he said. "I loved those people and it really hit me hard."

He said, "It lasted a long time –- about 18, 19 years. It was not an easy time."

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