Google co-founder Brin named a defendant in wrongful death complaint

Lawsuit accuses contractor and co-defendants of 'pacify and delay' tactics

Sergey Brin and two of his businesses – Google and Bayshore Global Management – are named in a lawsuit seeking damages over the death of a pilot who attempted to ferry one of Brin's airplanes from California to his private island in Fiji.

The complaint [PDF] was filed on February 8 in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Santa Clara, by Maria Magdalena Olarte Maclean, widow of the deceased Lance Maclean.

The lawsuit alleges that in May 2023 Brin requested his aircraft, a Viking DHC-6-400 Twin Otter, be brought to him in Fiji. The contractors hired for the task were Southern Cross Aviation and Seafly LLC, both of which are also named as defendants.

Southern Cross contracted ferry flight pilots for Brin, while Seafly was responsible for the aircraft's maintenance "over a period of many years."

The reason, as claimed in the court filings, was so that Brin could "treat his private guests to some island hopping."

As the distance from California to Fiji is beyond the aircraft's normal range, the complaint alleges Seafly installed a ferry fuel system "purchased by Defendants Brin, Bayshore, and Google" consisting of "fuel bladders" with electric pumps and hoses.

The aircraft was to make a stop in Hawaii. Without the ferry fuel system, it would not have been capable of that distance either.

The complaint alleges a number of shortcomings with the modification's installation. It claims that Seafly's mechanic, James Kitti, did not have the manufacturer's "data to guide the installation of the ferry fuel system when he installed the bladders, valves, electric pumps, hoses, and straps for the doomed flight."

It is alleged that Kitti installed the system "from memory," made no entry in the logbook regarding the installation, and did not fill out Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Form 337 (Major Repair and Alteration). It is also claimed that "Defendants Brin, Bayshore, Google, and Seafly did not file a Special Permit for the ferry flight."

At 0805 local time on May 20, 2023, the aircraft took off without issue from a Sonoma County airstrip in Santa Rosa, California, bound for Honolulu, Hawaii.

However, several hours into the flight, Maclean and his co-pilot, Dean Rushfeldt, radioed Seafly asking for help with a malfunction in the ferry fuel system. "Fuel was not transferring from the fuel bladders into the main fuel tanks, starving the aircraft of fuel," the complaint alleges.

Maclean "immediately diverted the aircraft back East toward the California coast" while Seafly personnel "continued to troubleshoot the ferry fuel system's failure" for an hour and a half "to no avail."

The airplane crashed into the sea at 1354 local time off the coast of Half Moon Bay, where Maclean had been heading for a nearby community airfield.

The Coast Guard attended in a helicopter and found the aircraft floating upside down. Both pilots remained strapped in their seats inside the cockpit. Neither survived the crash.

As the helicopter crew was unable to recover the bodies at that time, the aircraft sank, reaching the bottom at a depth of less than 3,000 feet.

The complaint claims: "From the outset of the crash, despite publicly assuring Plaintiff that her husband's remains would be recovered, Brin and his agents decided to leave him at the bottom of the ocean along with evidence that would establish that Defendants were responsible for the crash that killed the two pilots."

This includes Brin's agents claiming that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration refused to grant permission for such an excursion, though the organization denied that a permit was even required – at least according to the complaint.

"Plaintiff endured even more trauma realizing that Brin's agents, who publicly promised to 'ensure all resources' would assist the recovery 'as long as needed,' did not mean it."

"Instead of bringing all assets to bear to recover the aircraft and the pilots as promised, Brin partied on in Fiji, knowing that his long-time pilots and friends lay at the bottom of the ocean, having callously determined to keep them there."

The lawsuit goes on to allege that Brin "decided not to act" because neither certification on the modified fuel system nor the required FAA paperwork had been completed.

When a fuel bladder was found at Manhattan Beach in June, it is claimed that "Brin sent his agents to recover the bladder and conducted an aerial search (by helicopter) along 60 miles of coastline, looking for more wreckage. None was found." It is not known whether the fuel bladder was related to the crashed aircraft.

It is further claimed that although Brin's agents promised "24-hour-a-day search operations would begin on June 25," these were called off due to weather. Despite conditions improving the following week, the plaintiff was told that high waves and strong winds prevented recovery efforts for the next fortnight.

"The stall tactics had a tragic and insidious upshot. If the search did not proceed in June, the vessel selected by Brin and/or his agents would not be available for another month, further delaying the search," the complaint alleges. "Brin and his team were intentionally running out the clock."

From July 31, 2023, Maclean's widow alleges on-again-off-again attempts that threw her into "despair" every time the search vessel left the site. Eventually, it was claimed that the plaintiff should not communicate with Brin's party, but the National Transportation Safety Board instead – though this is disputed.

By October, the plaintiff's counsel asked Google to enlist the team that recovered the Titan submersible to help in the effort, but was told the megacorp has "no involvement" with the crash and "does not own or otherwise have a relationship to the aircraft, its pilots, or other personnel."

The complaint maintains that "Brin and his agents delayed the search and recovery effort of the subject aircraft, degrading and destroying evidence that would show that the ferry fuel system aboard the aircraft was illegally installed, causing the death of both pilots." Theodore Neal, director of aviation for Seafly, is also named as a defendant.

The lawsuit seeks relief for severe emotional distress, economic damages, and general damages alleging tortious interference with a dead body, wrongful death and survival negligence, product liability, conversion, and injunction.

Counsel information for Brin and Neal was not immediately available. As Google is named as a co-defendant, The Register has asked the search giant to comment. ®

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