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Lawsuit: attendant who refueled plane that crashed should have been barred from working

The family of a pilot who died after his plane crashed in Spokane alleges that the attendant at Felts Field who pumped the wrong kind of fuel into the aircraft should never have been working at that job.

An updated lawsuit, filed this week in Spokane County Superior Court, claims the attendant, Christopher Therrell, wrongly filled Michael Clements’ propeller plane with jet fuel, causing the engine to malfunction.

Clements, 61, was flying alone from Alberta, Canada, to California on Feb. 22, 2015. Shortly after stopping at Felts Field to refuel, his Piper Malibu Mirage crashed north of East Sprague Avenue at Erie Street, near the Hamilton Street bridge over the Spokane River.

Clements was unconscious when removed from the plane and died two days later at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Investigators quickly determined the plane was filled with jet fuel, even though it had a piston-powered engine that uses aviation fuel.

Therrell was an employee of Western Aviation, Felts Field’s fuel concessionaire. The lawsuit claims he had a history of drug problems that should have precluded him from getting the job. It claims Western Aviation hired him because his uncle, Tim Gump, owns the company.

The lawsuit claims the company knew about Therrell’s history and did not require him to pass a drug test before hiring him. It also claims that after Clements’ plane crashed, Therrell agreed to take a drug test but never showed up.

Therrell later was promoted to a management position, supervising other refueling attendants, although he never completed management training, the lawsuit claims.

Attempts to contact Therrell on Friday afternoon were unsuccessful. A Western Aviation employee also declined comment Friday.

The lawsuit seeks damages from Therell and Western Aviation as well as two fuel providers, Houston-based Phillips 66 and Kalispell-based CityServiceValcon. It claims the fuel providers were responsible for ensuring Western Aviation complied with safety regulations, but ignored “critical deficiencies” detected in 2010.

Refueling stations are supposed to be outfitted with a different nozzle for each type of fuel, reducing the likelihood of a mix-up. Instead, the lawsuit claims, Western Aviation used a “rogue nozzle” to refuel Clements’ plane – after repeatedly mistaking it for a plane that runs on jet fuel.

Clements’ death, the lawsuit concludes, “was caused by the negligence, carelessness and recklessness of the defendants.”

A Phillips 66 spokesman said the company doesn’t comment on legal matters, and attempts to contact a CityServiceValcon spokesperson were unsuccessful.

The lawyer representing Clements’ estate, James Anderson, said he and the family aren’t ready to comment on the case.

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said jet fuel is more volatile than aviation fuel, when the opposite is true.
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