A Teton County hot air balloon company is being sued by a passenger in an August accident that injured 12 passengers and sent 11 to the hospital.
On Aug. 3, 2020, three hot air balloons operated by Wyoming Balloon Company crashed near Teton Village, ejecting a pilot and passengers after an unexpected gust of wind picked up during their flight.
Now, Linda Columbus, one of the passengers injured that day, is suing the company for $75,000 in federal district court. The company wants to take the matter in front of a jury.
According to Columbus’ court filing, she was tossed from the balloon when it made a crash landing after its pilot fell out. Her leg was caught in a rope attached to the balloon, which dragged her for several hundred more feet before the balloon rose about 10 feet off the ground and she managed to untangle herself and fall to the ground.
Court documents state her ear was torn from her scalp and had to be amputated. She also sustained fractures to her clavicle and to bones around her eyes, in addition to a concussion, a severely injured left hand and multiple other scratches and deep cuts.
Columbus’ legal team claims these injuries were a direct result of Wyoming Balloon Company’s negligence. In their response to the suit, the company’s lawyers say passengers take on all liability when they sign a release and assumption of risk agreement before going up.
The lawsuit claims the weather that morning was windy, and dark clouds could be seen to the west. The original complaint in the case also states that the passengers received little safety instruction, other than “don’t fall out,” before taking off. The company’s response denies that claim.
“Usually the only instructions we need are to listen to the pilot and not to exit early,” Wyoming Balloon Company owner Andrew Breffeilh said Friday. “Mostly the conditions are so calm, takeoff and landing are unnoticeable.”
Breffeilh said he thought all signs pointed to smooth flying the morning of the crash. The company regularly cancels flights because of less-than-ideal conditions, he said — in the summer, as many as one out of every three flights may be called off due to wind or bad weather.
The most likely explanation for what happened that day, he said, would be an invisible gust of wind that came when the balloons were already airborne. Winds went from zero to around 25 miles per hour within 10 minutes, Breffeilh said. According to the complaint, the balloon Columbus was in started descending after around half an hour in the air.
In 32 years of running the company, Breffeilh said he has never had a single accident or injury. No lawsuits, either — and so far, this is the only one to come out of the August crash.
“If any pilot is uncomfortable with the conditions, nobody flies,” Breffeilh said. “So we’re scratching our heads as to how it happened. I just feel terrible, because one misstep out of thousands is still too many.”
Breffeilh and another pilot, Richard Glas, were flying two of the three balloons that day. The third, which held Columbus and her partner, was piloted by Richard Lawhorn. Breffeilh said there’s more than 120 years of flying experience among his pilots, and Lawhorn is retired from a career as an airline pilot.
The company took a week off after the crash to deal with the aftermath, but Breffeilh said it has been business as usual since then.
Neither Columbus’ nor Wyoming Balloon Company’s legal teams responded to requests for comment as of Friday.