Click photo to enlarge
On Jan. 10, 2011, agricultural pilot Stephen Allen, of Courtland, was killed after his airplane struck an unmarked 198-foot tower on Webb Tract Island to evaluate the potential of wind turbines in that location. Allen likely never saw the steel tower that caused the fatal crash, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board. Had it been two feet taller, the company that erected it would have had to paint the tower in orange and white and put a light on top. AG pilots are calling for changes to regulations that say only towers 200 feet and taller must be marked with bright paint. Coincidentally, the Federal Aviation Administration last month began a public hearing process that would change its recommendation to developers on how tall a tower needs to be to have bright markings on it. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ganson)
CORRECTION (Published 12/1/2012)
A story about a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of agricultural pilot Stephen Allen incorrectly reported that NRG Systems chose to install a tower without markings, paint, lights, cable balls or devices to enhance visibility. NRG Systems was one of six parties named in the suit. It did not select the site in question, nor install the tower. Rather, NRG Systems sold and shipped the 198-foot tower to a local landowner and installer who performed the work onsite.

MARTINEZ -- The family of a pilot killed in a 2011 plane crash on a Delta island is suing those responsible for building the meteorological tower his airplane struck, saying it was purposely built to avoid federal regulations for making such structures more visible.

Agricultural pilot Stephen Allen was killed on Webb Tract in Contra Costa County on Jan. 10, 2011, after his airplane struck a 198-foot tower that he likely did not see, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Federal law requires that meteorological towers taller than 200 feet be painted in bright aviation colors and lit.

NRG Systems "willfully, intentionally and with a conscious disregard for the safety of others" chose to install the tower without markings, paint, lights, cable balls or devices to enhance visibility, according to a lawsuit filed last November in Sacramento County Superior Court by Allen's wife Karen and daughters Angela Lucero and Gail Back.

"Steve ran an agricultural business and had been flying for more than 25 years and by all accounts was a great guy, so from that perspective, the loss is incalculable," said Roger Dreyer, the attorney representing the Allen family.

The family is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages, Dreyer said.

NRG denies all of the allegations, and says that Allen's own carelessness was "concurrently and comparatively negligent" or at fault in the crash, attorney Craig Livingston said in response to the complaint. Further, Allen knew the risks and hazards in the area, he said.

Property owners Delta Wetlands Properties and ZKS Real Estate Partners LLC and tower installers Western Development and Storage LLC, Shah and Associates Inc. and Bouldin Farming Co. were also named as defendants for allowing the tower to be erected and knowing the possible risks and location of the tower, according to the suit.

Attorneys for those groups did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The case was transferred to Contra Costa County Superior Court earlier this year. A case-management conference is planned for early January.

Experts say wind energy companies build towers under the 200-foot federal threshold so that they can prevent competitors from learning their whereabouts through the federal permitting process.

The risk to agricultural pilots is an "intentional circumstance," Dreyer said.

"(The lawsuit) is about accountability," he said.

Prompted by Allen's crash, California legislators approved a bill this summer that requires that all such towers 50 feet and taller built after Jan. 1, 2013, be clearly marked with thick stripes of orange and white paint, orange tracking balls attached to each support wire, and clear marking on the ground where the wires are anchored.

It is optional for lights to be placed at the highest point of each tower. The bill has a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2018.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.