Miami real estate developer's helicopter crash lawsuit revived by appeals court

By Carrie Salls | May 28, 2016

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.”

Valdez, Jeffrey 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 the case.

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.”

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