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A Connecticut jury has ordered United Technologies Corp. to pay $22.9 million to two survivors and the estates of four men killed in the 1993 crash of a U.S. Army UH60 Black Hawk helicopter in Germany, rejecting United Technologies’ contention that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the “government contractor defense.” The Bridgeport jury found that the government contractor defense — which includes a requirement to warn of dangers in using the equipment — was nullified because United Technologies’ Sikorsky division didn’t warn the U.S. Army of a gravity imbalance caused by the placement of external fuel tanks on the aircraft, said plaintiffs’ attorney Robert F. Spohrer, of Jacksonville, Fla.’s Spohrer Wilner Maxwell & Matthews. PILOT ERROR REJECTED The jury also rejected Sikorsky’s contention that the Army pilot, plaintiff Christopher Mancini, was at fault in the crash, said Spohrer. The crash occurred on Feb. 23, 1993, when the Black Hawk was on approach to land at the U.S. Army base at Wiesbaden, Germany. “The pilot put the helicopter in a shallow turn; then he couldn’t straighten the aircraft,” said Spohrer. Pilot Mancini lost control and the helicopter crashed, killing Maj. Gen. Jarrett Robertson, who was deputy commanding general of V Corps; Col. William Densberger; Col. Robert Kelly; and crew chief Gary Rhodes Jr. Chief Warrant Officer Mancini and Maj. Eric Johnson survived but sustained extensive burns. The plaintiffs filed a products liability action against United Technologies. Densberger v. United Technologies Corp., 3-96-CV-532 (D. Conn.). At the Army’s request, Sikorsky had given the helicopter an external support system, which consisted of two small wings on the side of the aircraft from which fuel tanks or missiles could be suspended, Spohrer said: “This changed the handling characteristics of the aircraft.” The Black Hawk was carrying a pair of 230-gallon fuel tanks in the external system. During flight, he said, “one tank was emptying while the other remained full, causing an imbalance. “Sikorsky failed to properly determine the effect of an interruption in fuel flow on the aircraft’s lateral center of gravity,” Spohrer asserted. After the crash, Spohrer said, and after research, Sikorsky advised the Army not to exceed banking angles of 30 degrees and not to turn in the direction of an imbalance, and cautioned that the hovering capability of the aircraft was limited to 25-knot winds. Before the crash there were no restrictions on the aircraft, he asserted. United Technologies sought summary judgment, citing the government contractor defense, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 5000 514 (1988). In Boyle, the court determined that a government contractor could not be liable in a products liability action involving a product created for the military, if the government had approved reasonably precise specifications, the equipment conformed to those specifications and the supplier had warned the government about the dangers of using the equipment. Sikorsky contended that it was not liable because the company had simply designed the aircraft at the request of the Army. But in March 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall denied the motion to dismiss. “The jury found the government contractor defense was inapplicable because Sikorsky had failed to warn the Army of the hazards,” Spohrer said. At trial, the defense also sought a finding of comparative negligence against the pilot, said Spohrer. But “We were able to produce a Sikorsky memorandum from one of its investigators, saying, ‘I truly believe that the pilots were blind-sided.’” The memo noted that this loss of control “was bound to happen.” The largest awards in the $22.9 million jury verdict went to the survivors, with Mancini receiving $7.75 million and Maj. Johnson $5 million. Lead defense attorney Mark Dombroff, of Washington, D.C.’s Dombroff & Gilmore, declined to comment. Co-defense counsel Raymond L. Mariani, of the New York office of the Dombroff firm, said that United Technologies will appeal.

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