A Joshua teen who survived a 3,000-foot skydiving fall in Oklahoma in 2014 was awarded $760,000 in a lawsuit against the now-closed skydiving company and its owner last week, according to federal court records.
Makenzie Wethington, now 19, was badly injured after her parachute malfunctioned on Jan. 25, 2014 near Chickasha, Okla.
Wethington suffered injuries to her liver and broken bones including her pelvis, lumbar spine in her lower back, a shoulder blade and several ribs. She spent weeks in recovery but returned to school about two months later.
“If she truly fell 3,000 feet, I have no idea how she survived,” Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a trauma surgeon at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, told The Associated Press in 2014.
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Wethington had gone to the Pegasus Air Sports Center in Oklahoma with her father.
She was making a static-line jump, in which a parachute is connected to a lanyard attached to the plane and opens automatically when a diver exits the plane.
At the time, Robert Swainson, the owner of the Pegasus Air Sports Center, said Wethington’s parachute opened properly.
She began to spiral downward when the chute went up, but not because of a malfunction, he said. Swainson said a parachute can develop such a turn for several reasons, but that Wethington and other divers were instructed during a six-to-seven-hour training session on how to deal with such problems.
The lawsuit, filed in August 2014 in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, alleged that Wethington received only four hours of training and that Swainson was negligent by allowing her to use equipment that was “inappropriate for her skill level.”
Swainson’s response to the lawsuit argued that Wethington and her parents had assumed risk by signing a release waiver.
But Oklahoma law required that Swainson “owes a duty of care” to people who might have been endangered by skydiving, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti ruled.
DeGiusti agreed with the lawsuit’s allegation that her training time of four hours was “too small and fast for a person of her young age and relative experience.”
Robert Haslam, Wethington’s Fort Worth attorney, said more than 20 people had been injured at Pegasus Air Sports Center, according to testimony in the case.
One expert testified that Wethington needed a bigger parachute.
Another issue, Haslam said, was that the parachute she used was about 25 years old, though the Federal Aviation Administration ruled that the parachute was in good condition.
Also, Haslam said, of the four hours of instruction before the jump, only about 45 minutes was spent on how to handle problems with the parachute.
“It was just a dangerous operation all the way around,” Haslam said.
Three years after the accident, Wethington, now a pre-med student at Sam Houston State University, is “doing relatively well, considering the circumstances,” Haslam said, though she still suffers painful bladder infections and battles headaches.
Swainson did not appear in court and is now living in the United Kingdom, according to court records.
Haslam said he’ll file a claim in London to collect on the judgment, and the process could be difficult.
“It’s just a delay game for (Swainson),” Haslam said. “I think it’ll be very difficult to collect at the end of the day.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.