The family members of two men killed in the first crash involving a new civilian helicopter model have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging that defects in the engine and fuel system caused a mechanical malfunction soon after takeoff.
The suit, filed on Tuesday in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court, came as the same attorneys evaluated potential litigation stemming from Saturday’s crash of Asiana Airlines Inc. Flight 214 in San Francisco. Officials with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are investigating that crash, which killed two and injured 181 from among the 307 crew and passengers on board the Boeing 777.
Many of the injuries reported among the passengers were severe, including paralysis.
“Those could be really big cases,” said John Greaves, of counsel at Los Angeles-based Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman. He estimated that damages could reach in the tens of millions of dollars.
Baum Hedlund, which specializes in representing air crash victims, filed the suit involving a the Robinson Helicopter Co. model R66 that took off from an airport in Columbia and crashed near the town of Flandes on July 12, 2011, killing both occupants, friends Jose Ricardo Cabrera and Juan Pablo Gaviria Aristizabal.
The Columbia accident was the first to involve a Robinson R66 helicopter, introduced to the market in 2010 with a more powerful engine than its predecessors.
The suit alleges that the mechanical failure at takeoff caused an “uncontrollable power loss” in the 30 seconds leading to the crash. Five inspections of the aircraft during the last 1 1/2 years found that the fuel system was defective, causing the engine to go through “extreme cycles indicating uncontrollable full power.”
Cabrera, a certified pilot who moved to Columbia from the United States in 2009, left behind a wife and four adult children, according to the firm. Gaviria, former president of a nonprofit organization that flies doctors to remote communities, had a wife and three children.
Those family members have sued Robinson Helicopter Co. Inc., based in Torrance, Calif.; the engine makers, Rolls-Royce Corp. of Indianapolis, Rolls-Royce North America Inc. of Reston, Va., and Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC of London; and the manufacturers of the aircraft’s fuel system component parts, Honeywell International Inc. of Morristown, N.J., and Honeywell Aerospace of Phoenix.
Robinson spokeswoman Loretta Conley declined to comment. Calls to Rolls-Royce and Honeywell spokespeople were not returned.
Model R66 choppers have crashed three more times since then, according to the suit. In all four crashes—the others were in South Dakota, Brazil and New Zealand—either the pilot or a passenger, or both, were killed.
Ronald Goldman, senior partner at Baum Hedlund, said he expected to seek damages of tens of millions of dollars for the families of each man.
Goldman, who leads the aviation group at his firm, also plans to be lead trial counsel in the anticipated litigation over the Asiana Airlines flight, which was carrying 141 Chinese citizens, 77 citizens of South Korea, 64 from the United States, three from Canada, three from India, and one each from Japan, France and Vietnam.
“We’re following it quite closely and expected to be quite involved,” he said.
Asiana Airlines, based in South Korea, has apologized to the victims of the crash and said it “continues to actively cooperate with all Korean and U.S. governmental institutions in the ongoing investigation.”
The 1999 Montreal Convention dictates where passengers of an international flight can file suit—typically based on a passenger’s residence, where the ticket was bought or the location of the passenger’s ultimate destination. The location is important because U.S. courts offer significantly more damages awards for passengers.
The jurisdiction also depends on whether the fault for the crash ends up with Asiana or any number of manufacturers involved in assembling the aircraft, including The Boeing Co.
The NTSB investigation has so far indicated that the pilots failed to intervene when the automated speed of the plane plummeted. Given that finding, Greaves, of Baum Hedlund, said that lawyers for the crash victims could have a “pretty strong case against Asiana.”
“These pilots completely abrogated their responsibilities,” he said. “They didn’t fly the airplane. It’s just that simple.”
He said the crash was the latest example of a “cultural problem with Korean pilots,” many of whom in earlier accidents have failed to question the captain about problems with the plane until too late. He cited a Boeing 747 cargo plane flown by Korean Air Lines Co. that crashed in 1999 and another flown by Korean Air that crashed near Guam, killing 228 passengers in 1997.
“Asiana is a lot newer, but they’ve had several incidents, too,” Greaves said.
Robert Clifford, partner at Chicago’s Clifford Law Offices, cautioned against blaming the pilots too quickly. He said there was a “strong argument” that the plane should have been equipped with an alert system warning the pilots visually and audibly about the dropping air speed. The NTSB, he said, has been urging the Federal Aviation Administration to require such alerts for years.
“It’s insufficient and incomplete to say these guys were too low and too slow,” said Clifford, whose firm has already been contacted by victims of the Asiana Airlines crash. “That is an incomplete analysis. If that is the only analysis, and we didn’t pay attention to the high likelihood of human error—the possibility that people make mistakes—you wouldn’t wear a seatbelt in your car.”
Contact Amanda Bronstad at email@example.com.