By Joe Lambe
Kansas City Star
A Jackson County jury Thursday awarded $70 million to the family of a woman killed two years ago when a Life Flight helicopter crashed northeast of Kansas City.
The French company that made the helicopter had known since 1986 that its engines included a defective part, according to trial evidence.
Jurors, who listened to testimony for a month, decided after four hours of deliberation that Turbomeca S.A. of France and Turbomeca Engine Corp., a U.S. subsidiary, must pay $70 million to the family of Sherry Letz.
The French company is to pay 80 percent and the American branch the remainder.
Juror Raymond Pichardo Jr. of Kansas City said the verdict was partly intended to prompt the French company to correct the problem in helicopters all over the world.
“We wanted to make a statement,” he said. “When you’ve got a dangerous product and there’s something wrong with it, you fix it.”
Letz, of Bethany, Mo., was killed May 27, 1993, when the helicopter ambulance taking her to the St. Luke’s Hospital crashed in a DeKalb County cornfield. The crash also killed the pilot and severely injured a nurse and paramedic, whose lawsuits are pending.
Medical experts testified at the trial that the 20-year-old woman would have survived her injuries from a car wreck.
The wrongful-death lawsuit filed by her mother, Jodie Letz, and her two sons, Eric, 6, and Christopher, 3, was the first to reach trial.
A chart was among the key evidence in the long trial. From 1985 to May 1990, the chart showed seven failures or crashes of helicopters powered by Turbomeca engines because of the defective part. Other nations experiencing crashes included the Congo and Germany.
The chart showed eight engine failures or crashes, including that of the Life Flight helicopter, after May 11, 1990, when the company had a redesign part that could have been used in a recall of the engines.
In closing arguments Thursday, Gary C. Robb, lawyer for the Letz family, asked jurors for an award of $144 million.
“I didn’t pull that number out of a hat,” he said.
He told jurors to remember the testimony of a company official who said 2,850 of the defective second-stage nozzle guide vanes were in engines around the world. It would have cost $17,000 to recall each helicopter, the official said, a total of $48 million.
Robb said he wanted $48 million for the period from 1986, when the company told the French military of the problem, to mid-1990.
For the period since then, when the redesigned part was ready but there was no recall, Robb wanted an additional $48 million for the family’s loss, including two boys who no longer have a mother.
“They subjected people to death all over the world,” Robb said of the company and the defective engines. “They are still flying – 200 in the United States and 1,400 around the world.”
He attacked Turbomeca S.A. for sending service letters that told operators to listen for engine rubbing, instead of recalling the line.
“Send out paper instead of fixing the problem,” Robb said. “The first service letter said, `Listen.’ The second said, `Listen a little harder.'”
Douglas N. Ghertner, attorney for the Turbomeca companies, told jurors in closing arguments that the company does not believe the engine part caused the Life Flight crash. He said another defendant company, Rocky Mountain helicopters Inc., was to blame for not properly maintaining the helicopter.
That company, based in Utah, owned and maintained the Life Flight helicopter but contended it knew nothing about the defective part.
Paul Herbers, Rocky Mountain’s attorney, told jurors in closing arguments that the company got the final service letter only two weeks before the accident. Like the two other letters, he said, it gave no warning how serious the problem was and said to listen for rubbing noises. The guide vane was other wise to be replaced at routine, 2,500-mile overhauls.
Jurors saw enlargements of the service letters, including the last one that began, “Following an engine in-flight shutdown…”
“It wasn’t true there had been 20 or 21 failures by then,” Herbers said.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board had found that the defective part caused the crash and said Rocky Mountain was not to blame. Robb told jurors not to assess any blame to Rocky Mountain, and they did not.
Ghertner told jurors that the company started providing the new part free of cost after June 1992 for those that wanted to replace it during overhauls.
Since then, he said, “Only 6 percent of those parts retrieved for overhaul or inspection were found to have cracks.”
The cracks are in the steel ring hidden deep in the engine between spinning turbine blades, and they can lead to total engine failure. The new company part corrects the problem by using a stronger alloy and changing the angles of contact.
Ghertner declined to comment after the verdict.
Robb said, “This should be a case study in egregious conduct by a product manufacturer – there should be a congressional investigation.”
Jodie Letz, mother of the victim, said, “I feel like justice was done, but it’s never going to bring my daughter back.”
Juror Rita Brown of Blue Springs said of the companies, “It came down to the bottom line on their profits.”
“They’re not thinking about lives. After this, they’ll get insight.”