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Attorney: Victims' families seek answers about helicopter crash in lawsuits

Medical Helicopter Crash-2
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This aerial view shows the wreckage of a Duke Life Flight medical helicopter that crashed near Belvidere in Perquimans County on Friday, Sept. 8. All four people aboard the helicopter -- the pilot, two flight nurses and a patient -- died in the crash. The families of two of the crash victims have filed lawsuits against the helicopter's maker, the maker of the helicopter's engine, and the company that operated the helicopter.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, December 18, 2017

An attorney representing the families of two people killed in the crash of a Duke Life Flight helicopter in Perquimans County this fall said his clients’ lawsuits seek to find out what caused the aircraft’s engine to catch fire and what can be done to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

"That's the primary motivation. And both families feel very strongly about this," said Gary Robb of the lawsuits filed in Durham County Superior Court last week against the makers of the helicopter and its engine as well as the company that operated the aircraft.

Robb, a Kansas City, Missouri, lawyer who specializes in helicopter crash litigation, is, along with his wife and fellow attorney Anita Porte Robb and Durham attorney Guy Crabtree, representing the estates of Mary Bartlett and Kristopher Harrison.

Bartlett was the patient on the Duke Life Flight helicopter that crashed in the Belvidere area en route from Sentara Albemarle Medical Center to Duke University Medical Center in Durham on Sept. 8, killing all four people on board. Harrison was one of two Duke Life Flight nurses aboard the helicopter.

Both lawsuits name German-based Airbus Helicopters Deutschland, French-based Safran Helicopter and Safran's U.S. affiliate Safran USA, and Colorado-based Air Methods Corp. as defendants. Both lawsuits also indicate that the estate of Jeffrey Burke, the pilot’s helicopter, will be named as a defendant in the case.

According to the lawsuits, Airbus Helicopters Deutschland manufactured the helicopter, a 2011 Eurocopter, that caught fire and crashed on Sept. 8, Safran manufactured the Eurocopter’s engine, and Air Methods operated the Duke Life Flight. Air Methods also employed Burke, the helicopter’s pilot.

The fourth person killed the crash, flight nurse Crystal Sollinger, is not represented in the Bartlett and Harrison lawsuits.

Both lawsuits claim Airbus and Safran were negligent because they allegedly knew of the Eurocopter’s risk of an engine fire but did nothing to alert operators of the potential problem. The suits also claim Burke, the pilot, failed to maintain control of the helicopter and execute a proper and safe landing.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary investigation of the crash found the helicopter’s No. 2 engine rear turbine shaft bearing showed discoloration consistent with overheating and a lack of lubrication.

The Bartlett and Harrison lawsuits claim the fire that caused the helicopter’s No. 2 engine to fail was caused by a blocked engine drain line.

"We think the evidence (of what caused the crash) is very substantial, and it points to a failure of the No. 2 engine," Robb said. "The NTSB found the drain line to (that engine) be clogged, which would cause the fire and smoke that so many witnesses observed" prior to the helicopter’s crash.

Robb said a probe conducted by his firm and others found a similar engine problem forced a helicopter pilot to make an emergency landing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in late January.

He believes both the Eurocopter’s manufacturer and the helicopter engine’s manufacturer “knew what the problem was” but "sat on their hands" and did nothing to correct it. Nor did they inform operators of the potential danger, he said.

"The long and the short of it is we believe that these engine manufacturers should have informed operators about this problem way earlier," Robb said. "And, in fact, they still haven't done so."

Robb said it took the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a special bulletin, instructing operators to check the engine drain line for such clogging.

"I would point out how highly unusual it is in my 36 years (of practicing law) that the FAA would, on its own, issue this bulletin," he said. "So, that means they believe it's a very, very serious issue.”

Asked for comment on the lawsuits, Christina Ward, a spokeswoman for Air Methods, noted the Sept. 8 crash remains under investigation by both the FFA and the NTSB. She said Air Methods will continue to support the investigations in every way possible.

“While Air Methods cannot comment on ongoing litigation, our mission is to provide critical emergency air medical service to communities and people whose lives depend on it,” she said.

Attempts to reach representatives of Airbus Helicopters and Safran Helicopter by emails about the lawsuits were unsuccessful.

Attempts to reach Burke's widow for comment were also unsuccessful.

Both lawsuits call for a jury trial and seek damages of at least $25,000. That’s the minimum figure required by state law for a damage suit to be heard in Superior Court in North Carolina.

The suits also seek punitive damages. A civil court jury in North Carolina can award punitive damages if evidence and testimony at trial shows malicious or willful misconduct by a defendant.

Asked if Bartlett’s and Harrison’s families will get some kind of closure if their lawsuits are successful in court, Robb said it’s hard to say.

"It's very difficult, but what we hope is that we can effect closure by finding out what happened and sharing it so this will never happen again. That's closure," he said.

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