Family of Phoenix firefighter files suit

The family of one of the firefighters killed in the crash of a Carson Helicopter in Northern California in August has filed a wrongful death suit against the helicopter's owner and manufacturers.

The suit is the first of what is likely to be a string of civil lawsuits in response to the crash that killed nine of 13 people aboard a firefighting helicopter in a California wilderness. San Diego attorney Todd Macaluso of Macaluso & Associates filed it this week in Shasta County Superior Court in Redding, Calif.

The Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson Helicopter's Inc., of Merlin, lost power and crashed moments after takeoff Aug. 5 as it was ferrying firefighters back from a fire line on the Iron 44 Complex in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

The suit was filed on behalf of the estate and parents of Phoenix firefighter Scott Charlson, 25, and names Carson, helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and its parent company United Technologies Corp., and General Electric Co., which made the engine, as defendants.

The complaint alleges that design flaws and negligent maintenance might have caused the crash. It seeks general, special and punitive damages in amounts to be determined at trial.

Macaluso and his firm recently won a $55.6 million wrongful death judgment for the families of four Marines killed in 2004 when their helicopter hit a utility tower at Camp Pendleton.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co., was found negligent for not installing safety lights on the tower, but plans to appeal the decision.

Scott Charlson father, Rick Charlson, of Eugene, said his family's suit wasn't about money, but about finding out what happened. Correction: See below.

"I want to get to the bottom of it," he said.

He said SAIF, the state's worker's compensation insurance company, had encouraged families of those killed and injured in the crash to contact attorneys and he had spoken with representatives of three firms that handle aviation-related civil claims.

"This one does so much research," he said. "They uncover everything."

A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter's main rotor lost power on takeoff. Media reports have pointed to part of the aircraft's clutch system known as the input freewheel unit, which has been implicated in four crashes involving Sikorsky S-61 helicopters in the U.S. and Canada in the past 15 years.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Carson's director of helicopter operations, Andy Mills, dismissed such speculation. He said all Carson's S-61 helicopters, including the one that crashed, are equipped with improved and strengthened transmission parts that the company designed with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"They are very different and much stronger than the older units blamed in some of the previous crashes of the S-61 helicopter," he said in the statement.

He added that the company is working with the NTSB investigators to determine the cause of the crash.

That report could take up to a year, authorities have said.

An attorney now representing three other families of crash victims said more information from that report is needed to prepare civil suits. Art Johnson of Johnson, Clifton, Larson & Schaller, a Eugene law firm specializing in personal injury and wrongful death claims, represents survivors Jonathan Frohreich and Michael Brown and the estate and survivors of Shawn Blaze. He also plans to meet with another family next week.

However, Johnson said he doesn't plan to file any actions right away.

"We want the investigation to get further along before we identify the defendants," he said. "It looks like mechanical failure, but we won't have the details until the NTSB report is done."

Without more details on what happened and who is responsible, Johnson declined to even say what court the claims could be filed in. He noted that the case could be pursued in federal or state courts in California, Oregon or Pennsylvania, where Carson has a corporate office.

He said five or six law offices across the country are representing families connected with the crash. While it's common for attorneys to collaborate and consult with others on a "large tragedy" such as this one, each claim is separate, he said. Attorneys or the court ultimately could consolidate some of the cases if they are deemed similar enough.

Correction: Rick Charlson's name was misspelled in the original version of this story. This version has been corrected.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.


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