Relatives of four people who died alongside banda singer Jenni Rivera in a Mexico plane crash filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles today against the aircraft's owners and Rivera's company, claiming the plane was poorly maintained and the pilots were not properly licensed.
Rivera and her entourage, along with two pilots, were killed Dec. 9 when the plane crashed in the mountains of northern Mexico. The Learjet LJ25 crashed around 3:30 a.m., 15 minutes after leaving Monterrey, Mexico, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Rivera had just performed in Monterrey and was on her way to Mexico City to appear on the Mexican version of "The Voice.''
Members of Rivera's entourage who died in the crash were her publicist, Arturo Rivera; makeup artist Jacobo Yebale; hairstylist Jorge Armando Sanchez Vasquez; and Mario Macias Pacheco, her attorney. Their relatives filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the plane's current and previous owners, and against Jenni Rivera Enterprises.
The suit seeks economic damages for wrongful death and loss of support and punitive damages.
During a news conference at the Millennium Biltmore hotel in downtown Los Angeles, attorneys for the families blasted the owners of the 1969-vintage plane, Starwood Management and Rodatz Financial Group, for poorly maintaining the aircraft. They suggested that the left wing of the plane suffered serious damage in a 2005 ground accident and may have contributed to the crash.
"The plane was older than every single passenger, save the pilot,'' attorney Paul Kiesel said.
Kiesel also contended that the 78-year-old pilot was not licensed to fly using instruments only, meaning he was not allowed to fly above 18,000 feet where visibility can be compromised. The plane was believed to have been flying somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000 feet just prior to beginning a nearly five-mile nosedive.
The pilot, Miguel Perez Soto, was not medically certified to fly, and the 20-year-old co-pilot, Alejandro Torres, was not certified to fly the particular model of Learjet that crashed, the attorney alleged. The ages of the pilots -- the FAA does not allow pilots over 65 years old to fly passenger planes -- was cause for ``substantial concern,'' Kiesel said.
He suggested the crash might also have been caused by a failure to pressurize the cabin via a manual switch in the cockpit. If the plane was not pressurized, everyone on board might have passed out from a lack of oxygen, he said.
Officials with Las Vegas-based Starwood have insisted the plane was properly maintained. Company executive Christian Esquino Nunez has contended that Rivera was in the final stages of purchasing the airplane, and the fatal flight was intended as a "demo,'' the Los Angeles Times reported.
He claimed that the jet was in excellent condition and suggested the cause of the crash may have been a heart attack suffered by the pilot and the inability of 20-year-old co-pilot Alejandro Torres, to regain control of the plane. Torres was not certified to fly the particular Learjet model, according to the lawsuit.
The Times reported that Esquino has been in legal trouble for years over allegations of fraudulent business practices and falsifying records regarding the company's airplanes. He served two years in federal prison and was deported from Southern California to Mexico, The Times reported.
In a statement, Alba Cristian Garcia Razo, the wife of Rivera's personal attorney in Mexico, said "nothing will bring my husband back and nothing will return a smile to my son's face, but we are seeking answers and justice for this senseless loss.''
"My husband trusted and relied upon those he worked with. I have lost my husband and the father of my son and look for answers and believe the justice system will help me find them,'' Garcia Razo said.
Kiesel said Rivera Enterprises was named as a defendant in the suit because it is not yet clear whether someone with the company was responsible for booking the flight.
The case was filed in the United States rather than Mexico because Yebale was a Los Angeles resident, the flight might have technically originated at Van Nuys Airport, the plane's owners are based in the U.S. and because the plane was registered in the U.S., as designated by the ``N'' on the tail of the plane.
"Regardless of the fact that they were in Mexican airspace, the fact that there was an `N' tail number obligates them to comply with FAA standards,'' Kiesel said.
Rivera, 43, dominated the banda style of regional Mexican music popular in California and northwestern Mexico. She was one of the biggest stars on Mexico television and was popular on ``regional Mexican'' stations in California.
Rivera lived a tumultuous life, which was the basis for much of her music. She had been married and divorced three times, the last time from former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Esteban Loaiza.
The singer, who sold more than 15 million records, sang songs of heartbreak and abuse. She had her own reality show, and ABC was developing a comedy pilot for her, according to the entertainment website Deadline.com.