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Jury Awards $21.7 Million to Families of Helicopter Crash Victims

The families of three people who died in a helicopter crash in Kentucky in 2013 will share in a $21.7 million award after a jury found in their favor. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., the company that manufactured the helicopter involved in the tragedy. The lawsuit highlighted the dangers of helicopters breaking up mid-air due to manufacturing defects and alleged the company failed to take appropriate action to prevent such a disaster from happening.

Kentucky Crash Killed Three Aboard Medical Helicopter 

The men killed in the crash were:

  • Eddy Sizemore, 61, a retired sheriff's deputy who piloted the helicopter;
  • Herman "Lee" Dobbs, 40, a flight paramedic; and
  • Jesse Jones, 28, a flight nurse.

They were killed on June 6, 2013, when the medical helicopter they were in was returning to Manchester, Kentucky, after transporting a patient to St. Joseph Hospital in London. Only 750 feet from the helipad, the helicopter crashed into an elementary school parking lot. The aircraft exploded in flames after the crash.

NTSB Blamed Bell Helicopter Crash on Pilot Error 

A 2014 report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the accident was likely caused when the pilot became disoriented after flying into fog. The agency blamed the crash on a pilot maneuver, which it said the helicopter could not perform and caused the aircraft to break up in flight.

At around 11:15, a person on the Bell 206 L-1 was recorded saying "no." Nothing more was heard from the flight. Although weather conditions were forecast to be clear, patches of fog developed after the helicopter left on its return flight. That fog may have caused Sizemore to become disoriented and send the helicopter into a spiral short of the landing pad.

"A witness reported seeing the helicopter 'flying lower than normal' and then spinning before impact," the NTSB wrote. "Another witness reported seeing the helicopter in a nose-down attitude and then impact the ground." 

The NTSB noted that the main rotor and tail boom were separated from the cabin, with both found in separate spots 300 feet from the impact site. Furthermore, they noted that Sizemore was instrument rated but had not logged any instrument time recently and that he had training in using night vision goggles though it was not clear if he was using them at the time of the crash.

"The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's loss of helicopter control due to spatial disorientation when he inadvertently encountered night, instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the main rotor and tailboom," the agency concluded.

Victims' Families Blame Manufacturing Defect in Bell 206 Helicopter 

Despite the NTSB's findings, the victims' families argued that the helicopter's mid-air break-up was caused by a manufacturing defect, rather than pilot error. They alleged that a defect in the helicopter's main rotor blade caused the tail boom to break off, leaving the pilot with no means of safely landing the plane.

Furthermore, they argued that Bell knew about the defect and had information that the defect was linked to other fatal crashes, but did not take action to remedy the problem, leaving pilots and passengers at risk of catastrophic injuries. As a result, eight family members filed wrongful death lawsuits against Bell Helicopter Textron.

Jury Decides Kentucky Helicopter Crash was Caused By Defects 

Following a trial that lasted three weeks, and after deliberating five hours, the jury returned a verdict agreeing with the victims' families and awarding them $21.7 million. The jurors found that Bell's helicopters were unreasonably dangerous and that the defect was a significant cause of the medical helicopter crash. Each of the plaintiffs received a different amount.

In addition to the lawsuit, the families say they will ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate Bell Helicopters.

Bell Helicopters Linked to Other Crashes

The helicopter crash in Kentucky isn't the most recent tragedy involving Bell Helicopters. In 2016, two crew members died in an accident in Ellis County, Texas , when the Bell 525 Relentless helicopter they were in crashed an hour after it took off. Jason Grogan, a test pilot for Bell, and one other crew member died in the accident. Grogan was a Marine pilot who served two tours in Iraq but left the military in 2010. He left behind his wife and two children.

Similar to the accident in Kentucky, the tail boom of the 525 Relentless was located a distance from the helicopter's cabin.

A preliminary report from the NTSB indicated the aircraft broke-up in flight while it traveled at an altitude of around 1,975 feet. According to the report, the main rotor blades collided with the tail boom and nose, causing the crash.

In June 2010, a Bell Model 222 helicopter crashed, killing two people. An NTSB report regarding that crash found a component in the main rotor mechanism failed, causing the helicopter to jot suddenly and resulting in the tail boom breaking off mid-air.

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