By Carri Geer Thevenot
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
A Las Vegas jury awarded $16 million Friday to the families of two married couples who died in a December 2011 helicopter crash near Lake Mead.
“For almost three years the defendant, Sundance Helicopters Inc., has denied liability to these people for this helicopter crash,” attorney Gary Robb said after hearing the verdict. “They have refused to take responsibility.”
With seven relatives of the crash victims standing near him, Robb said he hopes the verdict sends a message to the entire helicopter tour industry:
“You’ve got to clean up your act. You’ve got to have safer maintenance practices, because these people depend on you for their lives.”
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said a worn lock nut came loose in a Sundance tour helicopter, causing the aircraft to spin upward out of control, then make a sharp turn and rapid descent before crashing.
They determined that a self-locking nut in the rotor mechanism had been reused in violation of guidelines. Other contributing factors were “the improper or non-use of a split pin (or ‘cotter pin’) to secure the degraded nut, in addition to an inadequate post-maintenance inspection.”
The helicopter was returning to McCarran International Airport from a twilight flight over Hoover Dam and Lake Mead when it suddenly made the strange maneuver before plunging into a narrow ravine in the River Mountains, 14 miles east of Las Vegas. The aircraft then broke into pieces and burned.
When asked if he thinks Sundance helicopters are safe today, Robb replied, “Absolutely not.”
“They’re still using many of the same maintenance practices that caused this crash, and that is despicable,” the lawyer said.
District Judge Ronald Israel presided over the case. Jurors deliberated about six hours before concluding that the company’s negligence caused the four deaths.
“It was a tough call,” juror Randy Peck said.
He said jurors had no trouble finding Sundance negligent, but they struggled to place a dollar amount on the loss of life.
Jurors awarded $2 million in damages to each of seven heirs, plus $500,000 to each of the four crash victims’ estates. They decided that Sundance should not be liable for punitive damages.
“We know they’re not in business to hurt people,” Peck said.
He said jurors viewed the crash as a tragic accident.
Killed in the crash were Lovish Bhanot, 28, and Anupama Bhola, 26, a honeymooning couple from India; Delwin and Tamara Chapman, both 49, a couple from Utica, Kan., who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary; and the 31-year-old pilot, Landon Nield.