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Mother of Girl Killed in Panama Crash Files Wrongful-Death Lawsuit

Kim Klein sues the estate of her ex-husband, multimillionaire Michael Klein, who died in the plane crash with their 13-year-old daughter.

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Kim Klein, right, lost her only daughter, Talia, in a December plane crash in the Panama mountains. Klein has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the estate of her ex-husband and Talia’s father, who also died in the crash. (Kim Klein family photo)

The mother of a 13-year-old Santa Barbara girl who died in a plane crash in the Panama mountains in December has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the estate of her multimillionaire ex-husband, hedge fund owner Michael Klein, who also died in the crash and was the girl’s father.

On Dec. 23, Klein’s Cesna 172 was on a 45-minute sightseeing flight when it crashed on the jungle-covered flanks of the remote Baru volcano, about 279 miles west of Panama City. The crash killed Klein, 37, and his daughter, Talia, as well as Panamanian charter pilot Edwin Lasso, 23.

The sole survivor of the crash was Francesca “Frankie” Lewis, then 12, a close friend and classmate of Talia’s at Crane Country Day School in Montecito. Frankie, who suffered a broken arm and hypothermia, was the subject of a frantic and dramatic, three-day search-and-rescue operation.

Attorneys for Talia’s mother, Kim Klein, charge that Michael Klein, a pilot, may or may not have been the aircraft’s main pilot that day, but either way was making the decisions on where to fly, and therefore exhibited reckless behavior by allowing the plane to fly at low altitudes in heavy fog and wind so he could take photos of property he intended to purchase. (Michael Klein and Lasso were sitting in the front of the plane at the dual controls.)

Attorneys for the estate counter that they don’t believe that Michael Klein was the pilot, and claim that an investigation conducted by Panamanian officials will refute much of what the plaintiff alleges.

Meanwhile, Frankie Lewis’ parents have filed a separate lawsuit against the estate for her injuries and emotional distress.

Both girls were seventh-graders at Crane and had accompanied Michael Klein on a holiday weekend on Isla Secas, an eco-resort island Klein owned. The three were expected to return to Santa Barbara on Christmas Eve.

Talia was Kim Klein’s only child.

“She was a 100-percent full-time mom,” said Stuart Fraenkel, the attorney handling the case for Los Angeles-based Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, one of the nation’s leading aviation law firms. “Her entire life revolved around taking care of Talia.”

Before the plane vanished from radar, witnesses reported seeing the aircraft flying at a very low altitude amid buffeting winds.

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At the time of her death, Talia Klein was a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Crane Country Day School. (Kim Klein family photo)

“He put these people in harm’s way,” Fraenkel said of Klein, chief executive officer of Pacificor LLC of Santa Barbara. “This wasn’t just negligence, this was recklessness. Taking pictures on the side of a volcano in winds of 30-plus miles per hour, in bad weather? Are you kidding me?”

Fraenkel added that Lasso, the other pilot, had been involved in at least one other aircraft incident in which he was either the pilot or co-pilot. As a result, he was nicknamed “Senor Muerta,” which means “Mr. Death,” according to court documents.

“He’s certainly not the person I would have selected to fly my child,” Fraenkel said.

Gary Hill, an attorney with the Santa Barbara firm representing the estate, said Fraenkel is “making it up as he goes along,” but he declined to say much more. He said his firm, Hill, Trager & Colton, has a policy against trying cases in the media.

“An accident occurred that was not in any way his fault,” Hill said of Klein. “This is certainly a man who loved life and his daughter. Why would he knowingly get into an aircraft if there was some reason to think some harm would befall them?”

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Pacificor and Michael Klein’s estate. All of Klein’s assets are under the control of his father, Robert Klein.

The lawsuit doesn’t specify how much money the plaintiffs are seeking; Fraenkel said that will be up to a jury to decide. Kim Klein and the Lewis family had sought claims before filing the lawsuit. Klein’s was for $500 million, the Lewises’ for $25 million. Both claims were rejected by Robert Klein on June 11.

“They chose not to communicate with us. It was a summary rejection,” Fraenkel said. The plaintiffs had 90 days from the date of the rejection to file a lawsuit, he said.

Fraenkel said his client filed a claim for what they believed to be the estate’s total worth — $500 million — because they didn’t want some of the money to disappear into “offshore companies and things of that nature.”

“If we don’t ask for all the assets to be locked up, money tends to disappear in these cases,” he said.

Hill said the claims lacked merit.

“It was not only excessive, it was totally unwarranted because he is not responsible,” he said. “(Michael) was a passenger with his daughter in an airplane. The owner of the plane is not being sued, the plane company is not being sued, the (estate of the) pilot is not being sued. The only one being sued is Michael.”

Michael and Kim Klein met while attending UCSB in the 1980s. She was a political science major, and he was an academic superstar, completing his sophomore, junior and senior years simultaneously, Fraenkel said.

“He was a very bright man, though common sense lacked, obviously,” Fraenkel said.

The Kleins were married in July 1989, about a year after graduating. Kim enrolled in the Santa Barbara College of Law because she thought it would be good to have an attorney in the family, but she has never practiced, Fraenkel said.

Michael received his master’s in business administration from Pepperdine University, where he met his second wife, Robin, Fraenkel said. In 1996, when Talia was 1, Michael Klein filed for divorce. At the time of his death, he was going through a divorce with Robin, Fraenkel said.

In business, Klein started out as a dot-com success story, launching several software companies that were purchased by major entities such as Hewlett-Packard. Among his developments was an e-mail list management company that was purchased by Yahoo! and renamed Yahoo! Groups.

In 1999 he got into the hedge fund business, becoming the largest investor — and later the CEO — of Pacificor. He purchased the company in 2002.

The Lewises’ case is being represented by Walter Lack, whose firm took the lead against PG&E in the famous case involving Erin Brockovich.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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