A jury in Kentucky has awarded the families of three people who died in a medical helicopter crash more than $21 million. Three people died in the June 6, 2013, tragedy, which occurred as the Bell 206 L-1 was approaching its helipad. Although the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident on pilot error, the victims’ families filed lawsuits against Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., the company that manufactured the aircraft involved in the accident.
Killed in the helicopter accident were:
• Eddy Sizemore, 61-years-old, the pilot;
• Herman “Lee” Dobbs, 40-years-old, the flight paramedic; and
• Jesse Jones, 28-years-old, the flight nurse.
Lawsuits were filed on behalf of eight family members, who alleged Bell Helicopter knew about potential defects with its aircraft but failed to take appropriate action.
Medical Helicopter Crashed on Return from Patient Flight
The Bell 206 was returning to its base in Manchester, Kentucky, after dropping off a patient at a hospital in London. Only 750 feet from its helipad, the Air Evac Lifeteam flight crashed into an elementary school parking lot.
At around 11:15 p.m., the Air Evac control center recording picked up someone from the helicopter saying “no.” Nothing more is heard from the flight. The forecast was reportedly clear for visual flight, but there were patches of fog. The fog moved in, unfortunately, after the flight had already taken off.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blamed the crash on the pilot becoming disoriented after flying into that fog, finding the pilot became confused thanks to visual cues—such as the ground—being hidden by fog. Data analyzed by the NTSB showed the helicopter underwent maneuvers similar to those a pilot would take to avoid fog, following which the pilot reportedly lost control of the helicopter.
That loss of control, the NTSB found, put stress on the helicopter and caused it to break apart. The NTSB noted the main rotor and tail boom were separated from the cabin while the helicopter was still in the air and landed 300 feet from the cabin, in different directions.
A preliminary report from the NTSB noted that the helicopter was seen “spinning” before it crashed, while at least one witness said the aircraft was in a “nose-up attitude” just before the engine cut out. The helicopter exploded upon impact. The first people to arrive at the wreckage found the helicopter on fire and realized there was nothing they could do to help the victims.
“It was just fire everywhere,” Kenneth Bailey said. “There was nothing we could do, so we just left. It was too late.”
Conflicting Reports of Weather Issues Surround Kentucky Helicopter Crash
Although witnesses said there was fog in the area, initially following the crash an official said the reports of fog might not have been accurate.
“We’re getting conflicting stories on issues of fog,” said Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson. “Obviously, there was smoke, which people sometimes translate as fog. After we’d been on scene for an hour, couple hours, it did clear out.”
Forecasters also said there was no severe weather in the area at the time of the crash.
Families Blame Aircraft Manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron
Despite the NTSB’s findings, the families of the three victims filed a lawsuit alleging the Bell helicopter was defective, which caused the aircraft to break apart mid-air. They argued that the defect caused a vibration which resulted in the tail boom breaking off, leaving the people on the helicopter with no safe way to land.
The families alleged Bell executives knew for more than two decades that there was a defect in their manufacturing processes but did nothing to address the problem. Furthermore, they argued the same defect is suspected in other previous crashes.
The jury agreed with the families following a three-week trial, finding Bell’s rotor was “unreasonably dangerous to the user” and that the defect in the rotor was a main cause of the tragic crash.
Family members were awarded varying amounts of the $21.7 million, including $7.5 million to the minor son of Jesse Jones. Meanwhile, the families are also looking into requesting the FAA open an investigation into Bell’s actions.
According to the Associated Press, the helicopter involved in the accident was refurbished the year before to give it more power and allow it to carry more weight. The same article notes that between June 2011 and June 2013 there were 32 crashes in the U.S. involving Bell 206 aircraft. Seven crashes resulted in 12 fatalities.
Meanwhile, Air Evac Lifeteam, a company that has operations in 15 states, had four fatal accidents in the six years before the Manchester tragedy, one in 2010, 2008 and 2007. Each of the four crashes killed all three crew members.
“We are devastated at this loss,” Air Evac Lifeteam President Seth Myers said at the time. “These were members of our family.”