Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Robinson Helicopter Co., the world’s largest helicopter manufacturer and one of Torrance’s largest private employers, for negligence in manufacturing defective products. The law firm blames this faulty design to be the cause of the crash and deaths of two veteran pilots in July of 2011.
This isn’t the first time that Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman filed a lawsuit against Robinson Helicopter. They have filed multiple lawsuits that span a decade, starting in 2001. In the five previous legal actions the law firm brought against Robinson, however, settlements were reached quietly and with full confidential agreements to prevent the terms being released to the public.
Ron Goldman, senior partner at the law firm said, “my interest is safety, not some vendetta against Robinson.” Goldman is an airplane pilot and former Pepperdine law professor with over 20 years of experience in handling these cases. “They have had multiple issues over the years, they have been very, very slow to respond”, he added.
Goldman isn’t the only one who feels that Robinson has been slow to response to issues and concerns. Aviation industry safety watchdogs in both the U.S. and overseas has raised their concerns over the design of Robinson helicopters for over the past two decades. In 1994, the National Transportation Safety Board went public with its concerns after reviewing 21 accidents involving Robinson helicopters. NTSB criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for lack of oversight over company’s products.
Most recently, all the attention has been focused on defective fuel tanks that tend to burst into flame from relatively minor crashes, often times burning the occupants alive. According to Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman’s figure, 74 people have died in at least 30 low-impact R44 model crashes since 1993. This includes the 2007 fatal crash in Washington where four people burned to death. Goldman represented the victims, which Robinson settled out of court in 2012 before it went to trial.
Other design defects of Robinson’s helicopter include issues with the main rotor blades, which Goldman’s colleague Ilyas Akbari compares to “linguini” because they tend to separate from the helicopter and hit its main body with catastrophic results. FAA stated this to be the main reason, which led to 30 fatal crashes from 1992 to 1995.
Robins declined to provide comments regarding the latest litigation or the figures on crashes complied by the law firm. “Robinson does not comment on any attorney’s allegations contained on websites, in legal briefs, or in other promotional materials during litigation,” the company said. “We are confident and look forward to favorably resolving this matter in court as quickly as possible. Robins remains committed to its customers and to the safety, quality and reliability of its aircraft.”
Despite the allegations of defective designs and numerous accidents, Robinson has routinely blamed pilot error for crashes, said Goldman.
More often, non-professional pilots fly Robinson helicopters because the helicopters are designed to be inexpensive and easy to fly. As such, flight schools commonly use them to train pilots. But they also have an industry reputation as being extremely “unforgiving,” with a small margin for error, Akbari said, or simply put, an inexperienced pilot can easily induce a stall that can cause a crash. “Once it crashes their modus operandi is to blame the pilot, put all the burden of safety on the pilot,” he said. “Our answer to that is ‘you know you are getting the most inexperienced pilots, you shouldn’t be making a helicopter that’s not forgiving.’”
In 1995, FAA ordered extra training for pilots who fly Robinson’s helicopters. But both the regulators and the company have been slow to correctly and promptly address the crashes and deaths, Goldman contends. For example, due to multiple fatal fires related to the fuel tank design, in April, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority ground all R44 models until they were retrofitted with new tanks. Though this was the very concern the NTSB indentified in 1995, FAA allowed Robinson to set a 2010 deadline for the retrofit installation. In the mean time, Robinson was allowed to fully operate the helicopters. There also were additional accidents in which 11 more people died, Goldman said. Ironically, four years before the retrofit deadline, Robinson issued a safety bulletin suggesting helicopter occupants consider wearing flame-retardant clothing.
These same issues and lack of stricter supervision are still on going. In February, the FAA proposed an updated airworthiness directive addressing the rotor blade problem. The update is now on hold, said FAA spokeman Ian Gregor, without further details.
Meantime, Robinson continues to blame pilot error for the crashes that resulted in Goldman’s latest lawsuit, file last month in the wake of the two deaths in Colombia after the crash of an R66 helicopter, the company’s new model introduce in fall of 2010. Since the introduction, there have been five R66 crashes, killing 11 people.
“Robinson Helicopter Company agrees with the findings of the Colombian Ministry of Air Transportation Safety that the R66 accident in Colombia was caused by pilot error,” the company said. “To date, U.S. or foreign governmental safety authorities and investigators have never singled out either the design or a mechanical issue as a cause of any R66 accident. We are saddened by the lost of lives, however the R66 accident in Colombia was not due to any problems with the aircraft.”
Goldman disagrees. Based on an investigation carried out by the law firm, they have found a defective fuel system Goldman alleges in the lawsuit caused “a series of extreme cycles indicating uncontrollable full power followed by moments of uncontrollable power loss during the final 30 seconds of flight prior to the crash.” Goldman said, “Robinson, in my opinion, continues to prioritize profit over passenger safety.”