The”Unite the Right” Rally in 2017 saw neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansman, and others associated with various right-wing ideologies converging for a two-day demonstration in Charlottesville, VA. Approximately one-half mile from the rally site, a group of activists had gathered to protest the rally. Self-identified white supremacist James Alex Fields, Jr. deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. Fields attempted to flee the scene.
A Virginia State Police helicopter monitored Fields as he sped away from the crime scene. Law enforcement officials in the helicopter followed the car and radioed information about its location and movements to ground units, who were able to apprehend Fields. The law enforcement helicopter also captured video footage of the attack and the aftermath, which was used at trial. Fields was ultimately found guilty of first-degree murder, hit and run, and malicious wounding.
The law enforcement officials who worked from the air to aid in the capture, Berke Bates and H. Jay Cullen, left the rally site via helicopter later that afternoon in order to monitor Governor Terry McAuliffe’s motorcade from the air, when their helicopter suddenly crashed, killing both men.
Now the widows of the two men have filed a wrongful death suit, alleging that negligence and fraud led to the fatal helicopter crash. The plaintiffs assert that the helicopter, a Bell 407 manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron, was a “maintenance nightmare” with a reputation for often requiring repairs; these repairs would ultimately lead to the crash. According to the complaint, “these defendants failed to inform the Virginia State Police that the helicopter was beyond its useful service life and due to its history should have been retired from service and by otherwise failing to perform inspections and maintenance that fell well below the standard of care in the industry.”
Defendants in the wrongful death claim include Bell Helicopter Textron, Rolls-Royce Corp., Dallas Airmotive Inc., Triumph Group Inc., Uniflight West Penn LLC (a maintenance company), and Goodrich Pump & Engine Control Systems Inc. Rolls-Royce and Bell Helicopter have responded, denying responsibility for the crash and arguing the claims of negligence and fraud are insufficient. They have also posed a number of affirmative defenses, including operator error.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are still working to determine why the helicopter crashed. Shortly following the crash, the NTSB estimated that the agency’s final report would be completed within 12 to 18 months. At the time of this writing—24 months after the accident—no report has been made available. A spokesman for the NTSB recently said that the final decision is now not expected until next year.
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