By Felicia Fonseca
The Washington Post
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The parents of a British tourist who died after the Grand Canyon sightseeing helicopter he was in crashed have filed the first wrongful death lawsuit related to last month’s crash.
The complaint filed Friday in Clark County District Court in Nevada accused helicopter owner Papillon Airways and manufacturer Airbus of negligence in failing to equip the helicopter with a crash-resistant fuel system.
The systems have fuel tanks that expand, rather than rupture, on impact and self-sealing components to keep fuel from spreading. They are meant to prevent aircraft from catching fire and lessen the chance that people on board get burned.
Jonathan Udall, of Southampton, was burned on more than 95 percent of his body in the crash and died Feb. 22 in a Las Vegas trauma center — 10 days after the helicopter crashed at the bottom of the canyon on the Hualapai reservation outside the national park.
His parents, Philip and Marlene Udall, claimed in the lawsuit that their son could have survived if not for the post-crash fire and want to prevent others from suffering deadly burns, their attorney, Gary C. Robb, told The Associated Press. The lawsuit seeks more than $195,000, other unspecified damages, attorneys’ fees and a jury trial.
“There is no possible excuse for any helicopter not to have this simple but utterly effective technology, no excuse. None,” Robb said. “If any helicopter executive spent five minutes with any of these burn victims, I guarantee every helicopter in their fleet would have it.”
Representatives of Papillon and Airbus did not immediately return email and phone messages seeking comment late Friday.
The National Transportation Safety Board repeatedly has urged the Federal Aviation Administration to require that all helicopters have the systems. The FAA is considering it but right now they are required only for helicopter models that are newly certified after 1994, a requirement that aviation experts have called a major loophole. The Airbus EC130 B4 that crashed in the Grand Canyon was manufactured in 2010 but it is a version of helicopter that was designed before 1994.
Airbus spokesman Bob Cox said earlier this week that all single-engine helicopters the company has sold in the U.S. since 2016 include the systems.
Papillon announced Monday that it would retrofit 40 of its Airbus EC130 B4 and AS350 B3 helicopters with the new fuel systems starting in April — a move Robb said came too late.
Robb has represented others who were burned after helicopter hard landings and crashes, including a flight nurse who recently settled a lawsuit against Airbus and Air Methods Corp. for $100 million. In that case, the nurse spent 13 months in the hospital for burns over 90 percent of his body, kidney failure and internal bleeding after the medical helicopter he was in crashed shortly after takeoff in Frisco, Colorado, and erupted into flames.
The helicopter pilot was killed in the 2015 incident and another flight nurse was injured. The NTSB found that the pilot turned off a switch that cut hydraulic pressure to the tail rotor.
The NTSB report on the Grand Canyon crash won’t be out for more than a year. A preliminary report released last month said the helicopter made at least two 360-degree turns before crashing with Udall, his five friends and the pilot aboard. Aviation experts said that indicates the tail rotor wasn’t operating properly.
Three of the passengers — veterinary receptionist Becky Dobson, 27; her boyfriend and car salesman Stuart Hill, 30; and Hill’s brother, 32-year-old lawyer Jason Hill — died at the crash site. Udall’s wife of three months, Ellie Milward Udall, later died at a hospital. All of them were British and on the trip to celebrate Stuart Hill’s birthday.
Robb said Jonathan Udall suffered third- and fourth-degree burns, and his wife had burns over 35 percent of her body.
A sixth passenger, 39-year-old Jennifer Barham, and the 42-year-old pilot, Scott Booth, remained in critical condition Friday.