Billboard -- A lawsuit on behalf of the estate of a traveling companion of regional Mexican singer Jenni Rivera has been filed against the company that owned, operated or maintained the Learjet 25 that crashed minutes after departing from Monterrey, Mexico. Makeup artist Jacob Yebale died in a plane crash with the star and five others on Dec. 9.
The petition was entered by Yebale's estate and filed on Jan. 2 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., by Ribbeck Law Chartered. The lawsuit seeks a "multi-million dollar damages award" and aims to "bring to justice all responsible parties including the owner, the leasing company; the maintenance company, and Learjet, a division of Bombardier Aerospace, the company that designed and manufactures the aircraft," according to Monica Kelly, head of Global Aviation for the law firm.
"Lives were lost," Kelly said when reached by phone. "Someone is responsible. We want to know who and make sure the person or entity is brought to justice. It is a search for justice. Jacob was very much loved and his family needs answers."
Kelly confirmed that the firm filed the petition for discovery and a hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 6 at 9 a.m. in Cook County Court in Chicago.
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The petition's respondents are Learjet Corporation, a division of Bombardier Aerospace, and Bombardier Aerospace. Officials for the companies were not immediately available for comment.
Rivera's Los Angeles-based attorney Anthony Lopez declined to comment on the lawsuit when reached by phone.
"The companies have to be punished for their dangerous wrongful behavior that has caused the loss of seven lives," Kelly said in a statement. "These companies do not have feelings. They only understand dollars and cents. That is why we have to get a multi-million dollar award, to hurt them in their pockets, where it really hurts them, so they change the way they conduct business."
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According to the Chicago-based Ribbeck Law, experts will meet with investigators of the Mexican Civil Aviation Department and will conduct an independent investigation at the crash site.
Rivera and Yebale were also traveling with publicist Arturo Rivera (no relation), stylist Jorge Sanchez, attorney Mario Macias and pilots Miguel Perez and Alejandro Torres. All died in the crash.
After the plane nosedived to the ground from an altitude of 28,000 feet at a speed of 600 miles an hour, killing all aboard, questions were quickly raised about the owner of the plane, Las Vegas-based Starwood Enterprises, and its operations manager, Christian E. Esquino Nuñez.
Esquino has served jail time for forgery and drug trafficking charges related to the aviation company, media outlets reported. Court records examined by Univision News showed that Esquino, also known as Eduardo Nuñez, owes millions in state and federal taxes and has not paid money he owes to the group Los Tigres del Norte.
In 2005, according to those court records, Esquino and his partner Lance Z. Ricotta were convicted by a federal grand jury on charges of "creating false and fictitious logbooks" for six planes. Esquino had purchased the jets from the Mexican government and then sold them to buyers in the United States at higher prices.
CNN uncovered more about Esquino's past, reporting that two civil lawsuits against Starwood accuse the firm of lying about its relationship to him. Insurance firms QBE and Commerce &Industry Insurance Company filed suits this year seeking to rescind its contracts with Starwood.
Also according to CNN, Esquino, under the name Eduardo Nunez, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2002 of falsifying logbooks to obtain airworthiness certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and later deported to Mexico.
Esquino was previously indicted in Florida on drug trafficking charges, CNN revealed. The United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida accused Esquino of providing planes to cocaine smugglers transporting 487 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to South Florida. Esquino pleaded guilty in 1993 to conspiring to conceal from the Internal Revenue Service "the existence, source and transfer of cash," court records show. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
In the interview with the L.A. Times after Rivera's plane crashed, Esquino addressed the incident. He speculated that the pilot, 78-year-old Manuel Perez Soto, suffered a heart attack on board, and that his co-pilot, 20-year-old Alejandro Torres, was too "green" to get the plane back on course.
Billboard learned that pilot of the Learjet was not licensed in the United States to carry passengers on a commercial flight, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Pérez Soto, a Mexican resident, held a U.S. license that was "not valid for the carriage of persons or property for compensation," according to the Federal Aviation Administration's records, accessed by Billboard on the FAA web site. His license was also restricted to visual flight rules (VFR) only - meaning that he was not authorized for the instrument-controlled flying that can be necessary when skies are not clear. U.S. regulations also allowed Pérez Soto to fly only when in possession of a valid Mexican license together with his FAA-issued license.
The Mexican Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) said that Pérez Soto and his co-pilot Torres were both currently licensed to fly in Mexico.
According to the SCT, Starwood Management said that Rivera was thinking of purchasing the jet for her private use and the company was therefore allowing her to use it on a promotional basis, without paying a fee, implying that any issue about Pérez Soto piloting a passenger plane would not apply in this case.
The SCT also reported that according to Starwood, that plane's promotional use made void generally accepted international rules governing cabotage, which would prohibit a commercial U.S.-owned plane from transporting passengers between destinations in another country. Esquino told the Los Angeles Times that Rivera was "in the final stages" of buying the Learjet on which she and the others perished.
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