An Oregon jury has determined that a problem with an engine was responsible for the 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine firefighters during a wildfire in Northern California. A pilot who survived and the widow of one who was killed sued General Electric. The Plaintiffs contended the company knew the engines it made for the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter had a design flaw making them unsafe. GE countered that the helicopter crashed because it was carrying too much weight when it took off after picking up a firefighting crew on the Iron 44 wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, Calif. Based on media reports it appears that William Coultas and Roark Schwanenberg, the pilot and co-pilot, saved as many people as they could. The helicopter was airborne less than a minute when it clipped a tree and fell from the sky, bursting into flames. Four people survived, including Coultas.
The lawsuit was brought by Coultas, his wife and the estate of Schwanenberg, who died in the crash. The jury awarded $28.4 million to the estate. Coultas was awarded $37 million and his wife $4.3 million by the jury. The jury put most of the blame – 57 percent – on GE. But the jurors also found the helicopter’s owner and its manufacturer to be partially at fault. Helicopter operator Carson Helicopters was dismissed from the case, and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. previously settled with the Plaintiffs in this case. Interestingly, Carson Helicopters had blamed GE’s engine for the crash.
During the trial it was shown that GE knew for at least six years that there was a problem with a fuel control valve on the engine. But rather than correct the problem, the company treated it like a service issue. A GE internal email dated August 6, 2008, the day after the crash, was introduced into evidence. The email discussed the size of the fuel filter, noting that the military version removes much smaller particles than the commercial version.
The families of eight men who were killed and three who were injured had reached out-of-court settlements with three of five defendants in lawsuits they filed after the crash. Those defendants included Carson Helicopters and Sikorsky. GE Aviation has indicated it will appeal the verdict in this case.
Source: Associated Press
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