Judge Denies Robinson Helicopter Company's Motion to Remove Helicopter Crash Trial Outside U.S.

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A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has denied a forum non conveniens motion filed by Robinson Helicopter Company, Rolls-Royce and Honeywell to have a fatal helicopter crash case (the very first R66 crash) removed from her courtroom in Los Angeles to be litigated in Colombia, where the crash occurred. In her March 28, 2014 ruling, the Honorable Michelle R. Rosenblatt said that private and public factors weigh in favor of keeping the lawsuit in California, which is where the lawsuit was filed.

Jose Ricardo Cabrera and his R66 HelicopterOn July 12, 2011, a Robinson R66 helicopter (N810AG) departed from Girardot Airport in Colombia and crashed near Flandes. Both occupants of the helicopter, Jose Ricardo Cabrera and Juan Pablo Gaviria, were killed in the crash.

The wives and children of Cabrera and Gaviria filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 in Los Angeles Superior Court against Robinson Helicopter Company of Torrance, California; Rolls Royce Corporation of Indianapolis, Indiana; Rolls Royce North America of Reston, Virginia; Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC of London, England; Honeywell International of Morristown, New Jersey; and Honeywell Aerospace of Phoenix, Arizona.

The Cabrera and Gaviria families claim that shortly after the Robinson R66 departed from Girardot Airport, the chopper experienced a mechanical malfunction and uncontrollable loss of power as a result of defects in the helicopter's engine, fuel system components, and other parts of the helicopter. A witness to the crash reported hearing a cracking sound and saw something break off of the helicopter before it impacted with the ground.

According to the complaint, inspections of the crash aircraft have shown that the R66's Rolls-Royce RR300 engine experienced extreme cycles of uncontrollable full power followed by moments of uncontrollable power loss in the final 30 seconds before the helicopter hit the ground. Further inspections of the crash aircraft's fuel system showed defects, according to the lawsuit.

Robinson Helicopter Company filed a motion to stay the case for forum non conveniens, arguing that because the crash occurred on Colombian soil and the plaintiffs are mostly Colombian residents, the case too should be litigated and tried in Colombia. Forum non conveniens is employed when the court chosen by the plaintiff is an inconvenience to witnesses or places undue hardship on the defendant. The defendant then must petition the court for an order to transfer the case to a convenient court. The threshold question is whether the chosen forum, ie, Los Angeles, is a seriously inconvenient forum to litigate the case.

After three rounds of briefing and two sets of oral arguments, the aviation attorneys at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman were able fend off the claim of the U.S. manufacturers, including Robinson Helicopter Company, a California corp., each of whom took the position that litigation of their product liability case in Colombia would be more convenient for them than in their home state and country.

The Honorable Michelle R. Rosenblatt dismissed Robinson's motion because Robinson requires delivery of its helicopters to take place in California, and the "governing law" of the purchase agreement requires California law. "The primary allegations of products liability arise from the conduct, manufacturing and testing [of the crash helicopter], which occurred in California," wrote Judge Rosenblatt in her decision. "Jurisdiction is proper in California. Although the crash occurred in Colombia, Defendants have not sustained their burden of showing that Plaintiffs could definitely have their products liability claim heard in Colombia ... The Court finds that the Plaintiffs have shown that California has an interest in this action. The motion is denied."

“This is a huge win for consumers all across the world, not just the United States. It sends a strong message that if you design and manufacture a product in the United States for sale across the world, you will be held to answer in your home jurisdiction,” says aviation attorney Ilyas Akbari. “You cannot hide from liability just because your product harmed somebody who, fortuitously, happened to be outside the United States.”

About Baum Hedlund

The attorneys at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman have represented over 600 aviation accident victims. The firm has represented dozens of victims worldwide in product liability claims against some of the world's largest helicopter manufacturers, including Aerospatiale, Bell Helicopter Textron, Eurocopter, Hughes Helicopters, Messerschmitt-Bolkow Blohm, Robinson Helicopter Company and Sikorsky.