Nemec v. Robinson Helicopter

On April 13, 2006, a Robinson R44 helicopter with registration number N123CK, collided with power lines during takeoff from the Gillespie County Airport near Fredericksburg, Texas. As the helicopter crashed, a fire consumed the wreckage and injured passengers. The pilot and one passenger suffered severe burns, while the other two passengers were fatally injured. The pilot succumbed to his injuries eighteen months later, having been hospitalized the entire time. The flight was destined for a private ranch near Austin, Texas and had no filed flight plan. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the crash.

The pilot held both commercial and private pilot certificates. He had a helicopter and private plane rating, with around 400 hours of total flight time. According to eyewitnesses, the helicopter did not follow the typical procedures for taking off. At Gillespie County Airport, there are two exits from the parking apron that lead out onto a parallel taxiway. Instead of hover-taxiing over on this apron, the pilot departed in an easterly direction, flying between two unmarked light fixtures which are approximately 150 feet apart. After hitting the power lines, the pilot was heard to say, “I hit it,” and then there were no more transmissions. The National Transportation Safety Board stated the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s failure to follow standard taxi and takeoff procedures. However, a crash at this altitude should have been survivable.

Upon examination of the crash, the impact from the collision with the ground was survivable. Autopsies showed no traumatic injuries to the occupants caused by the crash itself. The impact of the collision caused a poorly designed fuel tank to rupture and ignite. The fuel tank rupture sprayed fuel throughout the cabin and cockpit of the helicopter, leading to a massive fire. The pilot was thrown from the helicopter, but still was injured from the fire. Bystanders helped to pull him away from the burning aircraft and roll him on the ground to extinguish the flames. The pilot survived for eighteen months in the ICU before succumbing to his injuries.

Slack Davis Sanger represented the pilot and his family in a suit against Robinson, the manufacturer of the helicopter. The plaintiffs alleged that the fuel system was defectively designed, causing the fuel tank to rupture under survivable and very light impact forces. The plaintiffs proposed a remedial design change in the fuel tank, fuel tank cap and fuel lines, and the manufacturer later adopted changes very similar to these proposed. In addition to the monetary settlement which concluded the case, the manufacturer also agreed to implement a product retrofit program for U.S. owners to replace the defective system with the improved system. They also agreed to spot inspections by plaintiff’s counsel to inspect the retrofit production line and to observe the manufacturer’s progress replacing defective fuel tanks and fuel system components. Slack Davis Sanger’s knowledge of deficiencies in Robinson aircraft and past accidents led to not only a substantial settlement, but also changes that made Robinson helicopters safer for future pilots and passengers.

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