Accidents are always terrible. Plane crashes are especially tragic. One particular plane crash that just occurred here in Florida hits especially close to home in the wrongful death lawyer community as four attorneys from the Stuart, Florida firm Peterson Bernard passed away in the crash near Lake Okeechobee.
The partners from the Peterson Bernard law firm were returning from Tampa on Friday where they’d flown that same morning aboard the same plane to meet with new clients.
As Friday afternoon wore on, an office manager was concerned that she hadn’t heard from the partners flying back from Tampa. She had seen news reports of a plane crashing into Lake Okeechobee, but it seemed like too weird a coincidence; it couldn’t be real.
Who Were the Attorneys in the Crash?
Those attorneys who passed away in the crash were identified Saturday as Eric Peterson, 73, of Lighthouse Point; Matthew Fiorello, 36, of Palm Beach Gardens; Heather Bridwell, 43, of Jupiter; and Edwin “Ted” Mortell III, 54, of Stuart. The pilot Eduardo Mulet also passed.
Mulet, 45, of West Palm Beach, and the Delaware-based charter company he flew for, also had questionable certifications, online records show and according to a flight expert interviewed.
Edwin “Ted” Mortell III was a managing shareholder for Peterson Bernard’s Stuart, Florida branch. The 54-year-old lawyer was also a past president of the Martin County Bar Association and a member of the Board of Directors at the Pine School in Martin County. Mortell’s primary practice areas included medical malpractice claims, wrongful death claims, real estate broker and agent malpractice, motor vehicle liability and several more, the firm’s website states.
Mortell excelled in construction-defect and wrongful-death cases. He leaves a widow and three sons, all recently graduating from college.
“I have known Ted since high school,” attorney William Ponsoldt Jr. said Saturday. “Ted was a great lawyer whose family always came first. Over the years I was on the opposite side of several cases from him and he was always a gentleman.”
Heather Bridwell, 43, of Jupiter, Florida, was a shareholder for the firm’s Stuart office and specialized in insurance defense. Bridwell served two terms as president of the Martin County Chapter of Florida Association for Women Lawyers and was on its board of directors, according to the firm. She is survived by her husband and daughter in elementary school.
“(Ted) trained Heather Bridwell and she followed his lead and was highly respected as well,” Ponsoldt said. “My heart goes out to both their families.”
Eric Peterson was the founder of the firm and Matthew Fiorello served at the firm’s offices in West Palm Beach, Florida. Peterson, a founding member of the firm from 1981, was married for more than 50 years and is survived by his wife, a son and two grandchildren.
So What Exactly Happened?
Officials say the twin-engine Piper PA-23-250, known as an Aztec, aircraft went down about 400 yards from the Lake Okeechobee’s southeast shore, just north of the Pahokee Airport. Records show the plane had taken off from Tampa International Airport.
The Tampa flight was a charter, which had departed from Sheltair Aviation Services’ executive hangar complex at the Tampa airport.
Charter companies are held to a higher standard and require a higher level of pilot training, certification, maintenance and more frequent proficiency checks, according to the FAA.
The downed aircraft was registered to L-Holdings LLC in Wilmington, Del., FAA records show. It was unclear whether the company held valid charter certifications for both the pilot and the aircraft that crashed.
The return flight took off at 2:21 p.m. bound for North Palm Beach County General Aviation airport. The estimated time of arrival was 3:35 p.m.
At about 3:18 p.m the flight began to unravel and by 3:22 p.m. it was on its way down, according to flightaware.com.
“The airplane was over Lake Okeechobee when it appears to have experienced engine problems,” said Robert Katz, a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor who has been flying for 38 years. “The direction of the flight changes abruptly from southeast to south to west to southeast again and then east again and then it disappears.”
Marine unit deputies and rescue workers recovered the bodies from the fuselage several hours after the Friday afternoon crash. Rescue divers found the five bodies — the pilot and his four passengers — when they searched the aircraft fuselage in the water, she said.
Mulet held the proper commercial pilot certification with the appropriate rating for the Piper aircraft but his required medical certification, records show, would have expired Nov. 30, 2018.
“This appears to be an unqualified pilot to operate a charter flight,” said Katz, the Dallas-based expert who tracks plane crashes nationwide. “The problem is that his medical certification was expired. After which he has no privilege to offer his services as a commercial pilot to the flying public.”
“It is perfectly capable of flying on one engine, but only in the hands of a qualified and proficient pilot,” Katz said. “It requires enormous precision to be able to bring an airplane flying on one engine down to the runway safely.”
If Mulet was a legitimate charter pilot, he would have to requalify by demonstrating his competence every six months, Katz said.
“The pilot was struggling to maintain control,” Katz said. “I think his intention was to land in Pahokee and terminate the flight as soon as possible. But at the end, he completely lost control of the flight, and this you could see on flightaware.com.”
The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct the crash investigation and the sheriff’s violent crimes division will handle the death investigation.