It's a tragic story. In 2019, a small plane lost control and took a nosedive into a Florida home. A 17-year-old girl inside was pinned to a bedroom wall. The ceiling and walls crumbled around her. A flight instructor on the plane died upon impact. He was 64.
The only other person on board—pilot Tim Sheehy, now the GOP’s top Senate recruit in Montana—survived.
Sheehy left the scene with minor injuries. He posed for a photo—while spattered in blood—with a man he credited with helping others amid the wreckage. Local news covered the crash in a frenzy. And then the news cycle eventually faded, as news cycles tend to do.
But years later, the incident is still playing out. Sheehy is being sued for negligence by the Florida family, the Ngalamulumes, whose home was damaged and whose daughter Carmelle was injured. That’s left Sheehy wrapped up in a lengthy legal battle ahead of a potential Senate run.
And the thing is, it’s not just any Senate run; for the GOP’s chances of taking back the Senate in 2024, it could be the Senate run.
In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is the last statewide-elected Democrat. He teetered on whether to run for re-election in 2024, citing a need to be home with his family and to tend to their farm. But Montana Democrats saw him as the only person capable of retaining the seat. Senate Democrats, facing an extensively difficult map in 2024, knew the same. Tester announced his re-election bid in February.
Republicans still think the seat is very winnable—and GOP Senate operatives in Washington have settled on Sheehy as their chosen recruit.
Sheehy is a former Navy Seal and a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the CEO of Bridger Aerospace, a Montana-based company that provides aerial services for fighting wildfires. He’s wealthy and could feasibly self-fund much of his campaign—a characteristic the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is leading the effort to recruit him, has increasingly valued in candidates.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), chair of the NRSC, has called Sheehy a “good friend and a great American.”
But while it’s not just any Senate race, it’s not just any lawsuit, either.
The Ngalamulume family declined to be involved in this piece. But according to court filings, their case against Sheehy rests on the argument that he should have known better and could have done better to prevent the crash.
The lawsuit states Sheehy “owed a legal duty to others, including Ms. Ngalamulume, to exercise reasonable care in flying, inspecting, maintaining and/or operating the seaplane.”
The family alleges Sheehy “breached said duty” by “carelessly and negligently flying, inspecting, maintaining and/or operating the Seaplane.”
Noted in the filings is that at the time of the accident, Sheehy was already an experienced pilot with single-engine certifications for land and sea, a commercial pilot certification and a flight-instructor certification. The Daily Beast verified Sheehy currently holds these certifications via his profile with the Federal Aviation Administration.
At the time of the accident, Sheehy was in the process of adding a multi-engine sea license to his list of certificates, according to his statement to the NTSB. That made the flight “instructional,” per the NTSB. James Wagner, the man who died upon impact, was the instructor for Sheehy’s additional certificate.
According to a report issued months after the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board, at the start of the flight, the instructor told Sheehy before the flight “that he would simulate an engine failure at some point after takeoff.”
Per the report, Sheehy told investigators that “after takeoff, about 200 to 300 ft above ground level, the instructor reduced power on the left engine, and the engine subsequently lost all power.”
Wagner took control of the plane and Sheehy said he started the “engine restart procedure” to no avail. The duo originally aimed to fall into a lake ahead of them, but they were unable to reach it, per Sheehy’s statement to the NTSB. The instructor tried to pivot to a lake to the left, but that was missed, too, before ultimately crashing into the house.
Federal regulations say “the pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight,” and the NTSB report designated Sheehy as the pilot of the flight. Sheehy’s response to the lawsuit referred to the instructor as the pilot-in-command.
Sheehy told the NTSB he and his instructor did a thorough pre-flight inspection before takeoff.
The NTSB ultimately said the crash was caused by “a total loss of left engine power for reasons that could not be determined, and the instructor's failure to maintain airspeed while maneuvering for a forced landing, which resulted in a loss of control.”
The report also noted that “the instructor’s decision to conduct a simulated engine failure at low altitude” contributed to the crash. Simulated engine failures are generally advised to be done at higher altitudes to give more leeway for recovery. In his response to the lawsuit, Sheehy also pointed to the instructor’s decision-making on the engine stall as part of his defense.
Both the Ngalamulumes’ and Sheehy’s attorneys have submitted witness lists—a typical move for a pre-trial case. Sheehy has not made a motion to dismiss.
The “airplane came to rest inside a house in a near-vertical, nose-down attitude” and landed inside the 17-year-old’s bedroom, per the NTSB report. According to a local report from the scene of the crash, the teen’s brother was in a neighboring room and attempted to free her but was unable to. The mother of the family had been in the shower—and three children were playing in the front yard.
Another local report said Sheehy attempted to help Ngalamulume before crews arrived and that he shut electrical power down in the home to avoid a fire. A 911 call from the scene of the crash described a chaotic scene—with bystanders shouting that fuel was leaking out of the plane and onto the house.
In original reports from the crash, Ngalamulume’s injuries were broadly listed as “minor.” But the NTSB report listed her as “seriously injured,” as did the family’s lawsuit. Ngalamulume’s lawyer Anthony Marsh said those sorts of discrepancies can be common after calamitous accidents, suggesting that if it’s something that doesn’t have to be immediately treated on site, it’s often dubbed minor at the time.
But Marsh said Ngalamulume was indeed left with “very, very serious injuries to her, specifically to her eye and her knee.”
On initial reports, Sheehy was also listed as not seriously injured. The NTSB report kept that characterization the same, stating the “pilot sustained minor injuries.”
As part of the lawsuit, Ngalamulume claims to have experienced bodily injury, pain and suffering, disability, mental anguish, disfigurement, and medical expenses related to seeking care, among other conditions.
The lawsuit also noted damages to the family’s home and personal property. The lawsuit states the family is seeking over $100,000 in damages.
Sheehy did not respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit or any updates on whether he intends to run for Senate.
A source familiar with the NRSC’s recruitment strategy told The Daily Beast, “This lawsuit does not raise any concerns whatsoever with regard to the NRSC’s support for Tim Sheehy.”
Legal battles are lengthy. And while the root of the story is still a tragic one, the political realities could grow harsh for Sheehy if the case grows contentious, or goes to trial during a potential Senate run.
If Sheehy runs, he could have a few Republican primary competitors. Other Republicans who’ve been floated for a Senate bid include Rep. Matt Rosendale, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and state Attorney General Austin Knudsen.
If he wins the nomination, he would be sure to face months of Democratic spending against him. Montana is one of the most crucial seats for Senate Democrats to retain next year, alongside West Virginia, Ohio, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
“We’ve put a lot on the line for the country,” Sheehy told Montana Talks radio in an interview, referring to him and his wife.
“We’re being asked again to consider serving, and we’re certainly considering it,” he said.