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2 more helicopter crash suits filed

Relatives of two firefighters killed in a crash of a Carson Helicopter in Northern California last summer have filed lawsuits against the aircraft's owner, manufacturers and a maintenance company.

The wrongful death, negligence and product liability lawsuits, filed Thursday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, seek more than $10 million each for the estates of Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass and Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford. The claims are made against Carson Helicopters Inc., of Merlin; helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and its parent company United Technologies Corp.; engine maker General Electric Co.; and Columbia Helicopters Inc., a maintenance company based in Aurora.

Defendants Carson and Columbia are embroiled in a separate federal suit over potential liability for the Aug. 5 crash that killed nine of 13 people aboard a firefighting helicopter in a California wilderness.

At least two other suits by representatives of the men killed in the crash have been filed and more are expected, said Portland attorney Bob Hopkins, who represents the families of Hammer and Rich. Hopkins has handled aviation cases for three decades, including two other suits involving Sikorsky helicopters like the one in this crash.

The claims he filed this week allege that negligence in the design, manufacture, sale, maintenance and operation of the helicopter and its parts contributed to the crash, and that the involved companies failed to provide adequate warnings or instruction.

Those claims are similar to ones made in earlier suits in California by other victims' representatives.

The estate and parents of Phoenix firefighter Scott Charlson, 25, filed suit in September in Shasta County Superior Court in Redding, Calif. That case names Carson, Sikorsky, United Technologies and General Electric as defendants, and alleges that design flaws and negligent maintenance might have caused the crash. In November, that case was moved to federal court in Sacramento.

The amount the companies would have to pay would be set at trial, but Charlson's father, Rick, said previously that his primary motivation was finding the truth about the crash and his son's death.

In December, Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., the workers' compensation provider for Carson pilot Roark Schwanenberg, sued Columbia, GE and Sikorsky in federal court in Sacramento. Schwanenberg, 54, lived in Lostine in northeastern Oregon and was survived by his wife and three children. The insurance company paid workers' compensation and death benefits to the family, thereby gaining the legal authority to recover damages in an amount to be set at trial, the suit said.

The suit claims Schwanenberg's death was caused by design and manufacturing defects that the companies should have known and warned people about.

The insurance company's suit prompted Columbia to sue Carson in Oregon federal court in Eugene in December. Columbia's complaint said that the contract between the two companies included an indemnity clause protecting Columbia from multimillion-dollar liability claims related to large helicopters it worked on. Carson protested that the contract was "one-sided and unduly onerous," and unenforceable, so it refused to promise that it would protect Columbia from possible lawsuits.

Columbia claims that refusal violated the contract and that it expects further breaches as additional suits arise. It asks a judge to enforce the contract and make Carson defend Columbia from any claims stemming from the crash.

Columbia then alleges in the suit that since the crash, Carson has arranged to sell six of its most valuable helicopters to Presidential Airways Inc., a subsidiary of the company that was known until Friday as Blackwater Worldwide, for use on a U.S. government contract in Afghanistan. Court documents state that the helicopters are expected to be shipped out in the first quarter of this year and asks for a judge to stop the sale.

In the documents, Columbia described the proposed sale as a fraudulent transfer of assets to block creditors and plaintiffs, and said that Carson's diminished fleet of about six lower-value helicopters with limited uses wouldn't be able to pay the debts and legal claims it faces. It asks the court to place a lien on Carson's helicopters to ensure Columbia can recover debts it might incur in liability suits stemming from the crash.

Representatives from Carson weren't available Friday afternoon to comment on any of the cases.

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