Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lawsuit filed against hot air balloon company

A woman from El Paso, Texas has filed a lawsuit in Napa County Superior Court against Balloons Above the Valley, claiming she was injured during a hard landing and dragged under the basket.

Melanie Rodriguez filed her suit on Jan. 8 against the Napa-based ballooning company. She continues to incur medical and hospital bills and suffers from lost income, the suit contends.

Due to “bad weather” over Napa Valley, passengers, including Rodriguez and her friend, took off from Winters in Yolo County on the morning of Feb. 15, 2014. The balloon was piloted by Robert Barbarick, the founder of Balloons of the Valley, according to the suit.

After an hour-long ride, Barbarick allegedly instructed the male passengers to get to the outside of the basket and the women to get in the middle as he prepared to land.

According to the suit, a worker on the ground told Barbarick not to land, saying “Don’t land – landing other baskets – can’t help you now.”

"Instead of waiting for assistance, Robert Barbarick disregarded the warning and decided to land without aid in an open field," the suit alleges, "causing (the balloon) to hit the ground and pitch the basket violently forward, throwing Plaintiff out onto the ground and into the way of the oncoming basket.

"The basket subsequently collided against her person, then dragged her underneath for a period of time before the balloon aircraft was able to lift the basket and the occupants back off the ground."

According to the suit, Rodriguez sustained "great physical and mental pain and suffering," with injuries to her "neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, legs and feet."

She is suing Balloons Above the Valley and Barbarick for general and special damages, including the cost of medical services and supplies as well as lost income, past and future, according to the suit.

“Robert Barbarick was unfit and incompetent” to pilot the hot air balloon and Balloons Above the Valley knew, or should have known, the risk involved with allowing him to pilot the aircraft, the complaint asserts.

Barbarick is a pioneer of Napa Valley hot air ballooning. He started flying balloons in 1977 and has over 6,800 hours of flying, according to the company’s website. “He works hard and is dedicated to keeping the balloon business safe, exciting and enjoyable for every passenger that flies with Balloons Above the Valley,” it reads.

Thomas Chesus, a Balloons Above the Valley representative, confirmed that Rodriguez did fly with the company, but said he did not immediately have any information regarding the alleged incident.

Company protocol is that passengers sign a passenger awareness form before taking off, which explains the risks that may be associated with the activity, Chesus said. He also reported that the company will obtain discovery information and plans to respond appropriately.  

The ballooning company has not yet filed response to the suit.

Register attempts over two days to get comments from Rodriguez's attorney were unsuccessful. Rodriguez is represented by Eric Arevalo and Nathaniel J. Patterson of Schumann Rosenberg out of Costa Mesa. 

A case management conference is scheduled for June 16.

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