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FAA to pay '03 crash survivor

A former Marine who was badly injured in a fatal chopper crash at Torrance airport will get $4.5 million.

September 25, 2008|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

The Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to pay $4.5 million to the survivor of a fatal 2003 helicopter crash that a federal judge concluded was caused by air traffic controllers at Torrance Municipal Airport, an attorney said Wednesday.

The money will settle a civil lawsuit filed by Gavin Heyworth, a 27-year-old ex-Marine who was severely injured in the midair collision with another helicopter that claimed the lives of two other men, said attorney Jeff Wolf, who represents Heyworth in the case.

Debra Fowler, a Department of Justice attorney who represented the FAA, could not be immediately reached for comment

The settlement brings the total government liability in the crash to more than $9 million, following a judge's award to another plaintiff last month.

Heyworth, then a 22-year-old student pilot, was initially determined to be at fault in the crash, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

But after a weeklong bench trial in May, U.S. District Judge Florence Marie Cooper concluded that the crash resulted from a string of errors by air traffic controllers who acted "negligently and carelessly" in guiding the two choppers before the crash.

The settlement was reached days before Cooper was to begin hearing the damages phase of Heyworth's case, Wolf said.

Heyworth suffered two broken legs, a shattered pelvis and extensive internal injuries requiring multiple operations. He was in a medicated coma for about two weeks, Wolf said.

"I'm not the person I was the day I climbed into that helicopter," Heyworth said in a prepared statement. "I'm no longer capable of doing what I could do as a Marine. I'm essentially a young man in an old man's body."

Heyworth had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and was training to become a professional helicopter pilot when he met with his instructor Nov. 6, 2003, and prepared for a solo flight in a Robinson 22.

Heyworth took off, did some training exercises north of the airport and had requested permission to land back at Pacific Coast Helicopters, where he had started.

About the same time, an R-44 helicopter carrying Robert Bailey and Brett Boyd was being directed to land on the airport's south runway.

According to Cooper's analysis of the accident, an air traffic controller suddenly told Heyworth to turn right, forcing him into the path of the other helicopter.

The impact of the collision knocked the rotor off Bailey and Boyd's chopper, causing it to plummet to the ground where it exploded, killing both men.

Heyworth's helicopter also fell to the ground, where it landed with enough force to break nearly every bone in Heyworth's body from the waist down, Wolf said.

Cooper found that a staffing shortage in the control tower, a lack of communication between two controllers on duty that day and the controllers' failure to follow standard procedure caused the accident.

"For years the government was trying to shift blame from their own fault onto to Heyworth," Wolf said.

"The judge's ruling finally put that to rest. Now, he can finally get on with his life."

Last month, Cooper ordered the FAA to pay Bailey's widow and three children $4.7 million.

She noted in her ruling that the 55-year-old flight instructor was "a highly exceptional man" upon whom his family was "strongly emotionally dependent."

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in an e-mail that, given the amount of the award in Bailey's case, settling Heyworth's "was in the best interest of the United States."

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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