After two decades of work fighting for helicopter crash victims, Gary C. Robb has witnessed significant legislative strides made to help prevent devastating burn injuries after hard landings.
Robb, partner at Kansas City-based Robb & Robb, couldn’t be prouder of the role he and his wife, Anita, have played in helping to bring about those safeguards.
“We have been beating that drum for 20 years because Anita and I believe that we have a moral imperative to remedy unsafe conditions in aircraft that lead to a crash,” he said.
Robb was lead attorney in the product defect and personal injury lawsuit filed after flight nurse David Repsher was severely burned when the medical helicopter in which he was riding crashed in Frisco, Colorado, just seconds after takeoff. The crash on July 3, 2015 killed the helicopter’s pilot and injured another flight nurse.
Repsher sustained burns on more than 90 percent of his body and was burned to the bone in some places. In 2018, one month before the case was to go to trial, Robb & Robb reached a $100 million settlement, believed to be the largest pre-trial settlement in the country for a single injured plaintiff.
In November 2019, the FAA released a safety alert requiring compliance with FAA Reauthorization Act 115-254, which says any helicopters manufactured after April 5, 2020 must have a crash-resistant fuel system (CRFS) that prevents a fuel tank from exploding after impact. The alert also recommends that owners install CRFS for helicopters built or those that had designs certified earlier than that date.
“I take great satisfaction because I know that so many people will avoid the kind of horrific burn injuries like Mr. Repsher suffered because this law went into effect,” Robb said.
Also, in 2019, spurred by Repsher’s injuries, U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse and Ed Perlmutter, both of Colorado, introduced a bill — the Safe Helicopters Now Act — that would offer a 10 percent tax credit for helicopter manufacturers to offset the cost of installing an upgraded fuel system, which Robb said generally costs between $25,000 and $30,000.
While the new federal law and a potential tax credit will help, Robb said only about 15 percent of the roughly 9,500 helicopters flying in the United States have the safer fuel system.
“That means over 8,000 helicopters flying in the U.S. today are literally fire bombs waiting to explode on a less-than-perfect landing,” Robb said. “If the helicopter that Mr. Repsher had been flying in had a crash-resistant fuel system, he literally would have walked away from that helicopter with a minor injury.”
Robb also is representing the family of one of five passengers killed after a helicopter crashed in the East River in New York in 2018. The passengers on the flight, operated by a tour company that flew with open doors, were strapped in with a harness system that allowed them to remain safely inside the aircraft. But shortly after the helicopter hit the water, it turned over and sank, drowning all five passengers who couldn’t escape their harnesses.
Robb said the lawsuit is moving forward in New York state court and that his firm is working with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to address legislation about open-door flights.
“Some of the greatest satisfaction in our work is where a company or manufacturer corrects a defect such that people in the future will not have to suffer the same fate as did our clients,” Robb said. “The work’s not yet done, but [the FAA Reauthorization Act] was a significant step forward.”