By Joe Lambe
Kansas City Star
A Jackson County jury Thursday ordered a French helicopter company to pay $350 million to the family of a pilot killed in a Life Flight helicopter crash.
The award, the largest such collectible verdict in Missouri and among the largest in the United States, goes to the widow, two children and parents of the pilot, James Barnett Jr.
The Atchison, Kan. family and the jurors said they wanted the verdict to force Turbomeca S.A. of France to recall and fix about 1,500 helicopters worldwide.
Those helicopters are still operating with the defective part that caused the engine to fail in Barnett’s Life Flight ambulance before it crashed May 27, 1993, in a DeKalb County cornfield near Cameron, Mo. The helicopter was flying the victim of a truck accident to St. Luke’s Hospital. Two persons were killed and two others were critically injured.
“You need to send a message so loud and so clear and so strong that it makes the headlines in Paris,” Gary C. Robb, attorney for the plaintiff, told jurors in closing arguments.
“Let the bell toll from this courthouse all over the world. Some people care about human life.”
The verdict signaled the end of all Jackson County cases filed against the helicopter manufacturer. Another jury in April awarded $70 million to the family of Sherry Letz, who also was killed. Turbomeca also settled two lawsuits for undisclosed amounts this year filed by a nurse and paramedic severely injured in the crash.
In the hallway Thursday after the verdict, a juror noted that many others could die as a result of defective helicopters. “They’re still up there,” she said.
Jury foreman David Babcock said, “We can’t bring Jim back, but maybe we can prevent it from happening again.”
Juya Barnett, the pilot’s widow, hugged jurors and spoke of the loving husband she met in Korea, married and raised two children with.
“I don’t want people to die anymore. They must fix it,” she said, speaking of the helicopter.
Turbomeca S.A. and its U.S. subsidiary, Turbomeca Engine Corp., knew of the problem with the TU-76 nozzle guide vane since 1986, when they told the French military. A replacement part has been available since 1992, company officials said, but a recall would have cost about $48 million.
Since 1992, the company has provided the part free in routine maintenance work done after 2,500 hours of flight time. It advised helicopter owners to listen for rubbing noises that might indicate failure of the part, but did not warn them of the seriousness of the problem.
Meanwhile, Robb told jurors, the defective part caused engine failures in at least 20 helicopters and led to crashes worldwide, including in Portugal, Bolivia and the Congo. Other helicopters were not on the list because they went into the sea, he said, or were so damaged no one could determine why they crashed.
“You can’t get a jury trial in the Congo, just burial expenses,” Robb said after the verdict. “They took a chance that if it crashed it wouldn’t crash in this country, where we have a legal system to punish them.”
But Douglas N. Ghertner, attorney for the helicopter companies, told jurors that the engine failures did not cause any crashes. “Engine failure does not mean crash,” he said. “Pilots are trained to anticipate engine failure and perform autorotation to the ground without engine power.”
Robb countered, “They’ll sell you an engine and it will get you into the air, but if it fails it’s your problem.”
“We’re talking about a company that did nothing for eight years with full knowledge of a defective part. And how much time did they give Jim Barnett to solve the problem? Twenty seconds.”
Ghertner told jurors that Rocky Mountain Helicopters Inc. was to blame for Barnett’s death. The Utah company, which employed Barnett and owned and operated the Life Flight helicopter, did not properly maintain the air ambulance, he argued.
Ghertner told jurors to remember a defense expert who said Barnett could not rotate to the ground because Rocky Mountain Helicopters had improperly adjusted a bolt.
But an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the defective French part caused the crash. It determined that Rocky Mountain maintained the helicopter properly and was not at fault.
Robb reminded jurors of a memo entered as evidence in which a Turbomeca official instructs an expert to somehow blame Rocky Mountain.
And remember, Robb told jurors, the videotape they saw of Barnett dancing and laughing with his wife and children.
“He had more helicopters to fly,” Robb said. “Jim Barnett Jr. had more lives to save. He had more dances to dance.”
The verdict against Turbomeca S.A. and its subsidiary came in two parts and ended a trial that lasted almost a month. Jurors first awarded $175 million in actual damages to the family – to Juya Barnett and the couple’s children, Jessie, 17, and Mia, 14, and to his parents, James and Wanda Barnett.
Jurors then came back with a verdict for $175 million more against the two Turbomeca companies for “aggravating circumstances” in the case – money intended to punish them and deter such conduct.
Jack Norton, President of the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers, said the $350 million verdict is the largest collectible wrongful-death verdict in Missouri and probably the United States.
The only larger wrongful-death verdict he and other lawyers could remember was a $5 billion verdict against Kansas City serial killer Robert Berdella, who could not pay.
Turbomeca S.A. has $1 billion in insurance split among 13 companies, according to court records.
After the verdict, Robb said, it is unlikely those insurance companies will renew Turbomeca’s coverage until it replaces the defective part in all its engines.