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Injured When Their Helicopter Crashed, Survivors Sued Over Faulty Manufacturing

By Roberta Iafolla

Daily Journal Staff Writer

Los Angeles – In what plaintiffs’ lawyers described as the largest settlement for military personnel injured during the Iraq war, a federal judge in Los Angeles Wednesday approved a $13.65 million settlement against Boeing and four other companies.

The plaintiffs, Chief Warrant Officers Juan Beltran and Ron Carns, were injured in August 2003 when their helicopter’s gearbox failed during a maintenance flight in Tikrit, causing the craft to crash from 800 feet.

The soldiers suffered major spinal injuries as a result; Beltran, of Los Angeles, is a quadriplegic, and Carns, of Fort Hood, Texas, has a metal device in his neck and back.

Because the U.S. Army is immune from liability, the men sued the manufacturers of the Apache Longbow helicopter’s gearbox, which drives the tail rotor, and its accelerometer, which should have warned the pilots of the gearbox problem. Beltran v. Chadwick-Helmuth, CV05-6344-R (JLTX).

To achieve the settlement, the plaintiffs’ attorneys had to maneuver around the government contractor immunity defense, which originates from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1988 case Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.

The court ruled that manufacturer of a military helicopter could not be held liable for design defects because it was designed according to government specifications.

Inadequate lubrication in the gearbox and gearbox bearings when the helicopter was built caused it to crash, said lead plaintiffs’ attorney Kevin Boyle of Panish Shea & Boyle in Los Angeles.

Boyle said the gearbox, designed to last 4,000 flight hours, failed after just 218.
In addition, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued, the accelerometer, designed to detect vibration, was instead rendered inoperable by excessive vibration.

“It was like a smoke alarm that failed when it sensed smoke,” Boyle said.
Gregory Keating, law professor and associate dean at USC Gould School of Law, said the plaintiffs had the necessary elements to beat the government contractor immunity defense, by arguing the gearbox was manufactured incorrectly and the accelerometer failed to meet the government’s specifications.

When these arguments are coupled with sympathetic plaintiffs – two severely injured soldiers – it’s no surprise the defendants did not want to test the case in court, Keating said.
After Beltran was injured, President Bush visited him at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C, on Sept. 11, 2003.

Boeing Company, Honeywell International Inc., Chadwick-Helmuth Electronics Inc., MPB Corp. and Aircraft Gear Corp. agreed to pay Beltran $11.28 million and Carns $2.3 million.
Representatives from Boeing and Honeywell declined to comment. Representatives from the other companies were unavailable for comment.

Representing Boeing were Perkins Coie attorneys Ronald A. McIntire and Steven K. Hwang in Santa Monica and Steven S. Bell and Todd W. Rosencrans in Seattle. Arthur I. Willner of Berger Kahn in Los Angeles represented Chadwick-Helmuth Electronics Inc. James W. Huston and William V. O’Connor Jr. of Morrison & Foerster in San Diego represented Honeywell International. Mark R. Irvine and James W. Hunt of Mendes & Mount in Los Angeles represented Aircraft Gear Corp. Garry L Montanari of Michaelis Montanari & Johnson in Westlake Village and William S. Cline of Day Ketterer in Ohio represented MPB Corp.

U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real approved the decision.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas V. Girardi, who has been stymied by the government contractor immunity defense, called the settlement “extraordinary.”

Boyle said this case, coupled with investigations conducted by Boeing and the U.S. Army, could lead to a change in the vibration monitoring system in the helicopter.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Carl Ey declined to comment on Boyle’s claim.

There are 120 Apache Longbow helicopters in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ey said.

The Apache Longbow helicopter has received criticism in media reports for its ineffectiveness in combat. One military analyst suggested that the military dump the craft, which is the Army’s primary attack helicopter in Iraq, in favor of the A-10 Warthog.

© 2007 Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved.

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