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Indiana Flight Nurse's Family Sues Over Fatal Helicopter Crash
Francesca Jarosz
Indianapolis Star

The family of a flight nurse killed in a Decatur County medical helicopter crash in August has filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for her death.

Sandra Pearson, 38, was killed along with pilot Roger Warren, 43, and paramedic and base manager Wade Weston, 38, when the rotor came off their Bell 206 Longranger before it crashed in a field outside Burney, about 40 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The lawsuit, filed late last week in Marion Superior Court, names as defendants Rolls-Royce, the helicopter's engine maker; Decatur County REMC, the utility responsible for maintaining power lines in the area; Rushville Memorial Hospital, which dispatched the helicopter; and Bell Helicopter Textron, the rotor manufacturer.

Attorneys hired by National Bank of Indianapolis filed the lawsuit on behalf of Pearson's two children, Gabrielle, 8, and Garrett, 10.

"These helicopter crashes have real human life consequences," said Gary Robb, a Kansas City, Mo., aviation attorney representing the plaintiffs. "I'm going to make sure these children do not have any kind of financial hardship over the death of their mother."

Rush Memorial Hospital contracted with Missouri-based Air Evac EMS, which owned and operated the helicopter, to provide air ambulance services.

What caused the rotor blades to break in the Aug. 31 crash has not been determined; the National Traffic Safety Board's investigation is ongoing.

According to the NTSB's interim factual report, the crew had left a fundraising event at a fire station in Burney about 1:20 p.m., destined for the aircraft's base in Rushville.

Witnesses said they saw helicopter parts separate from the craft in flight before it crashed about a mile from the fire station. The rotor blades were found broken on the ground about 200 yards from the body of the helicopter.

Maintenance records show the helicopter was inspected 10 days before the crash, the same day a low rumble and vibration from the rear of the aircraft was detected.

The lawsuit alleges that engine maker Rolls-Royce failed to properly warn operators that a rumbling noise or vibration "was not engine-related but could signify an impending fatigue fracture of the main rotor blade."

It accuses Bell Helicopter of selling the helicopter's rotor blades in defective condition. It also accuses Rush Memorial Hospital of dispatching the helicopter on an unsafe flight path, sending it on a non-emergency mission and failing to develop flight-risk evaluation programs.

Representatives for those three defendants declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the ongoing investigation. Rolls-Royce and Bell Helicopter said they have cooperated with the NTSB.

The lawsuit also states that Decatur County REMC failed to properly mark the overhead power lines for air traffic. Robb, the Kansas City lawyer, said contact with the lines could have caused the rotor to break, but according to the factual report, one witness said the helicopter cleared a set of power lines east of the station.

Don Schilling, president and general manager of REMC, said the company had no reports of damage to lines or outages on the day of the accident.

"We don't believe the lawsuit has merit with respect to us being included," Schilling said.

Since 2000, there have been 125 air medical helicopter accidents, including one so far this year, according to NTSB data.

The agency has made safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration regarding emergency medical services aircraft. Some of the recommendations include requiring operators to implement flight risk evaluation programs and use formalized dispatch and flight-following procedures.

A bill introduced in Congress this year, the Air Medical Safety Act, would establish more streamlined safety standards.

Robb, who is representing clients in 27 wrongful death lawsuits involving medical helicopters nationwide, said the industry needs greater regulation.

"This industry is in disarray," he said. "There's not (enough) oversight over air ambulances, and they send them when they shouldn't be sending them."

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Personal injury is an area of law that pertains to the injury of an individual. Both physical and emotional injuries fall into this branch of tort law. A personal injury lawyer is generally involved in cases where an injury has occurred due to the negligence of another party.

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