A jury has determined that the city of Fullerton violated the lease of a civilian aerial-combat fantasy camp and caused more than $1 million in economic damages after forcing the business from its longtime home at the Fullerton Airport.
Jurors following a civil trial at a Santa Ana courthouse unanimously determined last week that Air Combat USA should receive $1.2 million in damages after the city, which owns the airport, breached their lease.
Michael J. Blackstone, the current owner of Air Combat USA, celebrated the jury verdict, but said the future of the business still depends on a judge allowing them to move back into the hangar at the Fullerton Airport that the city has since leased to another company.
“It was a nightmare, I would say probably the worst thing that could happen to us, losing that lease,” Blackstone said. “If we don’t get that building back, we are done, we can’t recover.”
Fullerton city officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding the verdict.
Air Combat USA, which offered fliers fantasy flights that simulate air-to-air combat, was a more-than-30-year fixture at the airport. The company’s founder, Michael E. Blackstone, died in 2015, while the company was operating in the midst of a five-year lease.
A legal battle of leadership of Air Combat USA ended with Michael J. Blackstone taking over control of his father’s company.
At the time the lawsuit over the airport lease was filed, city officials argued that Air Combat USA failed to exercise an option to extend its lease in a timely fashion. In December 2017, the city approved a new tenant for the space formerly occupied by Air Combat USA, giving control of the space to Hangar 21 Helicopters, which offers rental space for private events, as well as aerial sightseeing.
During the trial, an attorney representing Air Combat USA argued that the airport manager told the company in June 2016 that its lease had expired and it could no longer renew it, despite the lease not actually expiring until October 2016.
Since leaving the Fullerton Airport, Air Combat USA has operated out of facilities in Chino and Long Beach, as well as John Wayne Airport. But Blackstone said the higher cost of operating out of those facilities is “crushing” the business.
Blackstone said the legal battle placed an “extreme burden” on him and his family.
“It wasn’t the money, I’m just grateful our name was cleared,” Blackstone said. “This was my father’s business, I just fought for what is right.”
Jurors did back claims by the city that an inspection of the hangar after Air Combat USA’s departure turned up property damage. Jurors found that negligence on Air Combat’s part resulted in an estimated $10,000 in property damage.
The civil jury trial was interrupted by courthouse closures because of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. It became one of the first civil trials to restart when the courthouse re-opened with new social-distancing measures and limited public access.
Source: Orange County Register