Faulty maintenance blamed for fatal Las Vegas helicopter crash; jury awards $16 million victims’ families

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by Charles Miller

Lovish Bhanot and Anupama Bhola had come from India and were on their honeymoon. Delwin and Tamara Chapman, from Utica, Kansas, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. They were all taking a “Twilight City Tour,” a helicopter tour of Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam operated by Sundance Helicopters, Inc. The pilot was the newly-married Landon Nield.

The helicopter was returning to McCarran International Airport when it suddenly plunged into a narrow ravine in the River Mountains, 14 miles east of Las Vegas. The helicopter then broke into pieces and caught on fire, killing all onboard the aircraft.

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that improper maintenance was the likely cause of the December 7, 2011 crash. A Las Vegas jury has now reached the same conclusion.

According to the NTSB, the accident occurred when the helicopter unexpectedly climbed about 600 feet, turned about 90° to the left, and then descended about 800 feet, entered a left turn, and descended at a rate of at least 2,500 feet per minute to impact.

During examination of the wreckage, the main rotor fore/aft servo, one of the three hydraulic servos that provide inputs to the main rotor, was found with its flight control input rod not connected. The bolt, washer, self-locking nut, and split pin (sometimes referred to as a “cotter pin” or “cotter key”) that normally secure the input rod to the main rotor fore/aft servo were not found.

The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the hardware was improperly secured during maintenance that had been conducted the day before the accident. The nut became loose (likely because it was degraded) and, without the split pin, the nut separated from the bolt, the bolt disconnected, and the input rod separated from the linkage while the helicopter was in flight, at which point the helicopter became uncontrollable and crashed.

The NTSB investigation revealed that Sundance Helicopters’ maintenance personnel were reusing nuts that did not meet the criteria specified by Eurocopter and FAA guidance. The improper reuse of a degraded self-locking nut on critical flight control components is a safety hazard because it negates the safety benefits of one of the two required locking devices.

The report also blamed maintenance personnel fatigue. According to the NTSB, the mechanic and the quality control inspector, who inspected the maintenance work completed the day before the accident, were likely fatigued. The investigation also found that Sundance’s maintenance documentation did not clearly delineate specific inspection steps, thus allowing the tasks to be more vulnerable to error through human factors.

A Las Vegas jury has found Sundance Helicopters Inc.’s negligence was responsible for the crash. The jury awarded $16 million to the families of the four passengers who died. The verdict includes $2 million in damages to each of seven heirs as well as $500,000 to each of the four crash victims’ estates. They jury did not award punitive damages.

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To successfully bring a claim involving a defective helicopter, airplane, car or other product clients need an experienced, educated attorney on their side. They also need an attorney with the financial resources to take the case to trial. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have tried hundreds of cases to verdict and have settled hundreds more.

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* Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2014.