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Court Rules Families of 3 Killed in Copter Crash Can Finally Sue

Appeals judge says law blocking suit against aircraft maker doesn't apply in this case.

June 14, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

The widows of three firefighters killed in a 1998 helicopter crash in Griffith Park may sue the aircraft's manufacturer for their deaths, a state appellate court ruled Friday.

A trial judge threw out the case two years ago. He ruled that federal law barred the plaintiffs from suing Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. because the Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter that crashed was more than 18 years old.

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles concluded that the law does not apply to Bell in this case. Judge Paul Boland wrote that there is evidence Bell withheld information from the Federal Aviation Administration "about five military aircraft accidents Bell knew were caused by failure of identical tail rotor yokes," which caused the Griffith Park accident.

Bell officials could not be reached for comment.

Lawyers argued that the Fort Worth-based manufacturer was required to report all parts failures, including those involving military aircraft. When Bell allegedly failed to do so, they were no longer protected by the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, lawyers for the widows argued.

The act eliminates the liability to manufacturers when the aircraft has been in use for 18 years or more. The helicopter that crashed was 22 years old. However, there is an exception for withholding information from the FAA.

Bell's lawyers maintained that they were not required under the law to report military crashes.

"This is great news," said Paul Hedlund, the plaintiffs' attorney. "They have been hiding behind this military exemption for as long as I can remember. It was time somebody called them on it."

The wrongful-death suit alleges that Bell knew there were problems with the rotor yoke and that it should have shortened the flight time on commercial aircraft, instead of extending it in 1989 from 4,000 to 5,000 hours, Hedlund said. Bell shortened the flight time for the same part in military helicopters to 2,400 hours in 1992, he said.

"If they hadn't lengthened it, all these people would be alive," Hedlund said, noting that the crash occurred after the helicopter had logged 4,117 hours of flight time.

Paramedics Michael A. Butler and Eric F. Reiner, both 33, and crew member Michael D. McComb, 48, were killed in March 1998, while rushing a critically injured 11-year-old car crash victim from Sun Valley to Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, about 10 miles away. The child, Norma Vides of Sun Valley, also died in the helicopter crash.

Pilot Steven L. Robinson and crew member Dennis Silgen were seriously injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crash was caused when a tail rotor separated from the aircraft in flight "due to a fatigue fracture in the yoke."

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