MIAMI – The Third District Court of Appeal revived a lawsuit earlier this year that pits the widow of a man who died in
a helicopter crash in the Bahamas against Miami real estate developer Jeffrey Soffer, saying the plaintiff
could amend her complaint to address “deficiencies.”
Repeated requests to attorneys for the plaintiff and defendants
for an update on the status of the case went unanswered.
Daria Gogoleva, the personal representative of the estate of
her late husband, Lance Valdez, appealed orders dismissing her amended
complaint and denying a transfer of the claims to the probate division of the
circuit court. The appeals court said “the combined effect of these orders is a
final adverse and appealable determination that Gogoleva’s action could not
proceed in either the civil or probate division.”
Soffer, Paula Riordan and Daniel Riordan were the four passengers in a
helicopter traveling on Nov. 22, 2012 from Marsh Harbor to Bakers Bay in the
Bahamas. A fifth occupant, David Pearce, was a licensed helicopter pilot and allegedly flew the helicopter for at least part of the flight. Soffer sat in the
co-pilot’s seat during the flight, but was not licensed to fly the helicopter.
The helicopter crashed near the landing site. Valdez died as
a result of the crash, and Soffer, the Riordans and Pearce were hurt. Gogoleva’s
amended complaint alleges that Soffer and the Riordans left the crash scene
because Soffer was concerned that the police in the Bahamas would find out that
he was actually flying the helicopter when it crashed.
“It’s very different - flying a helicopter is very different from flying a
fixed-wing aircraft," helicopter crash trial specialist Gary C. Robb of Robb &
Robb LLC told the Florida Record. "With helicopters, the pilot has to fly it. With an
airplane, the airplane flies itself with the pilot’s guidance.”
Pearce allegedly told Gogoleva and Valdez’s family the day after the
crash that Soffer was piloting the helicopter at the time of the crash and, although
Pearce was the only licensed and experienced helicopter pilot on board, he
allowed Soffer to take the controls and try to land without doing a “360 degree reconnaissance” of the landing site from a high-vantage point.
Soffer, however, claimed that Pearce was lying and that
Pearce lost control of the helicopter during the landing.
Alex Krys, an
executive with Soffer’s real estate group, and the Riordans also allegedly told Gogoleva
that Pearce was flying the helicopter at the time of the crash.
Krys was not in the helicopter, but was named as a defendant because he
recommended the attorney who allegedly misled Gogoleva, and,
according to the ruling, he told Gogoleva that he had spoken with Soffer
following the crash. Soffer assured Krys that Pearce was the pilot
"before and during the crash," according to court documents.
“(There are) those who have both rotorcraft...and fixed-wing
licenses,” Robb said. “But you need to have (a helicopter license) in order to
be able to capably fly.”
In March 2013, Gogoleva signed a release at the advice of
her attorney, who the amended complaint alleges failed to advise Gogoleva that
the insurance carrier did not require that she and her children release Soffer
or the Riordans from liability. She received a $2 million insurance payout intended to settle
After learning of the conflict related to the signing of the
release and that Soffer allegedly was actually flying the helicopter at the time of the
crash, Gogoleva filed a lawsuit against the Riordans, Krys and Soffer, making
claims of wrongful death against Soffer, fraudulent inducement against all
defendants, conspiracy against all defendants and rescission against Soffer.
She also alleged that the defendants lied about who was at the controls when
the helicopter crashed and conspired to have her release them from liability.
“Gogoleva’s allegations have not been proven,” Judge Vance Salter
wrote in the appeals court ruling. “Her claims against Soffer, the Riordans and Krys are difficult to unpack from her allegations relating to the non-party
attorney who allegedly misadvised her. At this procedural point, however, the
dismissal order impermissibly constrained further amendment.”