Jury: Engine flaw led to crash

$177 million civil suit verdict blames General Electric for 2008 helicopter accident that killed nine people
William Coultas holds hands with his wife, Chris, left, as his daughter, Ricci, 25, far right, and Christine Schwanenberg, react after a verdict is reached in Portland in their suit stemming from the 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine people. Coultas is the surviving co-pilot while Schwanenberg's husband, Roark, who was the pilot, was killed.AP

A faulty engine — not overloading — caused the deadly 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine, including seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties, in the Iron 44 wildfire in Northern California, a Portland jury has determined.

It took the jury more than two weeks to reach a verdict in the $177 million lawsuit against engine-maker General Electric brought by co-pilot William Coultas of Cave Junction, his wife, Chris, and the widow of pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, who died in the crash.

The verdict flies in the face of the National Transportation Safety Board's 2010 conclusion that Merlin-based Carson Helicopters' deliberate understatement of the weight of its Sikorsky S-61N helicopter by more than 1,000 pounds and lapses in safety oversight resulted in the crash.

Coultas, 47, a 1982 graduate of Illinois Valley High School, had told the board in both oral and written testimony that the Aug. 5, 2008, crash was caused by the loss of power in the No. 2 engine shortly after takeoff from a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, Calif.

He was severely burned in the crash, which occurred less than a minute after takeoff.

The aircraft clipped a tree, crashed and burst into flames, becoming the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history.

Plaintiffs' attorney Greg Anderson of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., had argued that GE knew the engines it made for the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter had a design flaw that rendered them unsafe. GE attorney Kevin Smith countered that the helicopter crashed because it was carrying too much weight when it took off after picking up a firefighting crew.

Coultas was awarded $37 million and his wife $4.3 million by the jury, while the estate of Schwanenberg was awarded $28.4 million, according to The Associated Press. The jury placed 57 percent of the blame on GE, but also found the helicopter's owner and its manufacturer partially at fault, the AP added.

"We're obviously happy with the verdict, but you can't get closure from something like this," Coultas' daughter, Ricci Coultas, 25, of Medford, told the Mail Tribune, speaking for the family via cellphone from Portland.

"At the end of the day, there are nine people who are not with us because of what happened," she added. "We still haven't forgotten about the other people affected by this."

While no verdict will ever bring back the husbands, father and sons who died that day, it vindicates what her father had argued all along about engine failure, she said.

"We are happy the truth was seen, that our voices were finally heard," she said.

Following the NTSB findings, Bill Coultas, the only surviving crew member, had told the Mail Tribune in 2010 that he was devastated by the board's conclusion.

"I'm troubled and hurt, partly because my testimony wasn't considered," the veteran pilot said at the time. "I was there. I had the best seat in the house. I knew what happened."

Coultas, whose son, Matthew, 19, is currently attending school to become a helicopter pilot, and Schwanenberg had been made scapegoats by the defendants, Anderson said.

"But they were heroes," he said after the trial. "Some people got out of the helicopter alive because of the way they put her down."

Coultas was both "elated and in shock" after the verdict, the attorney said.

"This verdict compensates these people for the pure hell it has caused their families," Anderson said, later adding, "Bill still has devastating injuries. He faces a future filled with surgeries and therapy. Every dime of that verdict is justified. ... We should be able to recover 100 percent of the verdict."

During the trial, Anderson argued the company had known for at least six years that there was a problem with the engine's fuel control valve. He had introduced as evidence a GE internal email from Aug. 6, 2008, discussing the size of the fuel filter, noting that the military version removes much smaller particles than the commercial version.

"This is a wake-up call for GE," Anderson said, adding that the plaintiffs are "very proud they are taking care of heavy-lift helicopter pilots around the world who are flying with these same engines."

But Rick Kennedy, a GE Aviation spokesman, told The Associated Press that it would appeal the verdict.

"We strongly disagree with the verdict," he said. "Our position has been all along that this verdict completely contradicts findings by the NTSB."

Carson Helicopters Inc., of Merlin, released a statement saying that it was gratified the full facts have been placed in front of an impartial jury.

"It has been Carson's continuing belief after a thorough investigation that the physical evidence strongly showed that the primary cause of this accident was a power loss due to contamination in the engine fuel control," it said. "Carson Helicopters keeps the families of the victims of this accident foremost in its thoughts and prayers, and hopes this brings some light and closure to this terrible accident."

Firefighters killed in the crash included David Steele, 19, Ashland; Shawn Blazer, 30, Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, Phoenix; Matthew Hammer, 23, Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, Medford; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, Cave Junction. U.S. Forest Service check pilot Jim Ramage, 63, of Redding, Calif., also died.

In addition to Coultas, three others survived: local firefighters Richard Schroeder Jr., Jonathan Frohreich and Michael Brown, who also received injuries. All of the firefighters were employed by Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin.

The families of eight men who were killed and three who were injured reached out-of-court settlements with three of five defendants in multiple lawsuits filed after the crash, according to The Associated Press.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.



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