Jurors Clear Learjet in Payne Stewart Plane Crash

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- A jury in a $200 million lawsuit cleared Learjet of responsibility Wednesday for the 1999 death of pro golfer Payne Stewart in a charter plane crash.

The twin-engine jet went down in a pasture in South Dakota after flying halfway across the country on autopilot, as Stewart and the four others aboard apparently lay unconscious for lack of oxygen after the plane lost cabin pressure. Everyone was killed.

Stewart's widow, Tracey, and their two children sued the aircraft manufacturer, claiming a cracked piece of equipment caused cabin air to escape as the plane made its ascent on its flight from Orlando to Dallas.

Learjet argued that the plane lost pressure in another way, and that the aircraft was poorly maintained by Sunjet, the now-defunct Florida company that operated the jet.

The jury deliberated for more than six hours.

In a statement after the verdict, Tracey Stewart, her two children and Dixie Fraley Keller, the widow of Stewart's agent, Robert Fraley, who also was on board, said ''their hope in this effort was to make air travel safer.''

''They brought this litigation not because of money in any capacity; it was always about responsibility,'' said attorney Gregory McNeill.

Learjet attorney Robert Banker referred questions to Learjet's parent company, Bombardier Aerospace of Quebec.

''While this is certainly a tragedy, we're glad the court agrees with us that this tragedy was not ... caused by Learjet,'' said company spokesman Leo Knaapen.

Just months before his death, Stewart won the U.S. Open in dramatic fashion by sinking a 15-foot par putt on the 18th hole at the Pinehurst No. 2 golf course in North Carolina. This year's U.S. Open begins next week at the same course, where Stewart's victory pose from that memorable putt has been commemorated with a life-size bronze statue just behind the 18th green.

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