After surviving a skydiving accident in which she fell more than 3,000 feet to the ground three years ago outside of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Makenzie Wethington of Joshua, North Texas has been awarded $760,000 in a lawsuit.
During the jump above Chickasha on January 25, 2014, Wethington, then 16, had a parachute malfunction and injured her liver and kidney, suffered from bleeding in her brain, chipped several teeth, and broke her pelvis, lumbar spine, shoulder blade, and several ribs.
If it seems unbelievable that Wethington survived such a horrific accident, even Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a trauma surgeon who treated her that weekend, had a hard time wrapping his head around it. He didn’t know the specifics of the fall, but said, “If she truly fell 3,000 feet, I have no idea how she survived.”
After spending almost a week in the Intensive Care Unit at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, Wethington underwent several weeks of recovery at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas. The doctor who oversaw her rehabilitation wondered how someone of “her size and stature” didn’t die from her fall. At first, she was unable to put weight on her legs when she tried to walk. She had to use her upper body strength even though she had a broken shoulder and collarbones. Determined to not spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, Makenzie persevered through her physical therapy and was eventually able to return to her high school in April of 2014.
Now a pre-med student at Sam Houston State University, Wethington was awarded $760,000 by a U.S. district judge this April. According to The Oklahoman, she was given $400,000 for physical pain and suffering, $350,000 for mental pain and suffering, and $100,000 for future medical expenses.
Originally, Wethington wanted to skydive for a high school graduation present, but after learning that the minimum age for a solo jump in Oklahoma was only 16, she convinced her parents to let her jump as a birthday gift instead.
Makenzie and her father, Joe Wethington, made the 200 mile drive from Joshua to Chickasha together. They were making a static-line jump. This means a lanyard attached to the plane is also attached to the parachute, which causes it to open automatically. Joe jumped first, landing safely on the ground. But during Makenzie’s jump, her parachute only opened partially and she began spinning toward the ground.
The lawsuit argued Makenzie wasn’t adequately trained for her jump, and that her parachute was beyond her skill level. However, Robert Swainson, the owner of now closed Pegasus Air Sports Skydiving Center in Chickasha, Oklahoma claimed she panicked during the jumped and failed to properly follow instructions. Also the chief instructor at Pegasus for over 30 years, Swainson, now 70 and living in the United Kingdom, argued that Wethingtong’s parachute did open completely and that it had a slight turn, which he said she could have easily correcting using techniques he taught during his five hour training class prior to the jump.
Swainson was unable to jump from the plane to help Wethington because another skydiver decided against jumping, and protocol dictated that Swainson had to remain on the plane. But, he said he transmitted instructions to Makenzie through a radio in her helmet.
“There are other things you can do to stop the turn, but she didn’t do anything,” he said. “I think she just panicked.”
The Federal Aviation Administration seemingly validated Swainson’s argument with a report released in June 2014, stating Makenzie’s parachute was in good working condition at the time of the jump, and it found no evidence of any safety violations at Pegasus Air Sports Center. In the end, U.S. District Judge Timothy DiGiusti ruled in Wethington’s favor.
Though he consented for his daughter to make the jump, Joe Wethington later said it should not have been allowed.
“I don’t think she should have been allowed at 16 to go up there and perform that type of jump; no matter what I say or she says, she shouldn’t have been allowed,” he said. “I find it very hard to believe that the rules and regulations in Oklahoma are that lax.”
In the aftermath of the accident, the U.S. Parachuting Association responded by raising the minimum age for a solo jump to 18 nationwide.
A few weeks after her fall, Makenzie said if she could go back, she would have waited until she was older to skydive.
“It’s definitely taught me there’s a God and he’s looking out for me,” she said.
She claimed in the lawsuit to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, panic attacks, headaches, and nightmares as a result of her accident. She also continues to receive treatment for kidney infections.
In a court filing, she stated, “This crash and all of the injuries and my ongoing recovery will forever affect the rest of my life.”