By Bill Estep
Lexington Herald Leader
A Clay County jury has awarded a total of $21.7 million to survivors of three people killed in the crash of a medical helicopter in June 2013.
The crash occurred as the helicopter returned to its base in Manchester after taking a patient to a hospital in London. The Bell 206 L-1 crashed in an elementary school parking lot about 750 feet from the helipad and burst into flames.
Those killed were the pilot, Eddy Sizemore, 61, a retired sheriff’s deputy from Laurel County; flight paramedic Herman “Lee” Dobbs, 40, of London; and flight nurse Jesse Jones, 28, of Pineville.
Eight family members of the victims sued Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., the maker of the helicopter.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the crash likely happened because the pilot became disoriented after unexpectedly flying into fog. Sizemore likely made a maneuver that placed too much stress on the aircraft, which broke apart in the air, the NTSB said.
However, Kansas City, Mo., attorney Gary C. Robb, who represented the families, said evidence at the trial showed a defect in the main rotor blade of the helicopter caused destructive vibration.
The tail boom broke off, followed by the entire roof section of the helicopter, said Robb, who has won several large verdicts in helicopter-crash cases.
The mid-air breakup of the helicopter left the pilot and crew helpless, he said.
Robb said Bell executives acknowledged they had known about the serious defect in their main rotor manufacturing process for more than 20 years.
“The company admitted that the main rotor blades did not meet their own manufacturing specifications,” Robb said.
Internal Bell documents showed that the company confirmed problems with the main rotor blade caused earlier fatal crashes in Indiana and Ontario, Canada, Robb said.
The defect also was suspected in at least four other crashes, but the rotors burned in those incidents, destroying evidence needed to prove the claim, Robb said.
Bell spokeswoman Lindsey Hughes said that while the company could not comment on pending litigation, there are “many issues” from the trial that need to be addressed by the state Court of Appeals and the company looks forward to another day in court.
Hughes said the NTSB thoroughly investigated the crash and found no design or manufacturing issues with the helicopter or its components.
“This was a tragic accident and we are saddened by the loss of life,” Hughes said.
The jury in Clay County returned its verdict late Thursday after a three-week trial. Robb’s wife, Anita, and Manchester attorney Scott Madden also represented the families.
Ruling for the family members required jurors to decide that Bell made, distributed or sold the main rotor blade of the helicopter “in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user,” and that the defect was a substantial factor in the crash, according to the jury instructions.
The jury awarded differing amounts of money to family members based on varying factors. The largest single award was $7.5 million to Jesse Jones’ minor son for the loss of his father’s love, affection and support, according to the verdict form.
Robb said the families of the three men killed in the crash want the FAA to open an investigation into Bell. He said he would file a formal complaint with the agency.
“We need increased safety in the helicopter industry,” Robb said.