$21 Million Verdict

Aviation Accident Case Summary

Military reservists die in helicopter crash with poorly marked power lines

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Attorneys: Morry S. Cole
Court: St. Louis City
Case #/Date: May 2011
Plaintiff: The families of Kenny Jones and George Lopez
Defendant: Three Rivers Electric Cooperative

The Problem:

Kenny Jones was a U.S. Army Reserve helicopter pilot and George Lopez was a flight engineer in the U.S. Army Reserves.  In 1994, they were on a training mission on board a Chinook helicopter.  The helicopter was flying about 100 feet above the Osage River in Missouri when it struck powers lines owned by Three Rivers Elective Cooperative, headquartered in Linn, Mo.

The helicopter crashed, killing Mr. Jones and Mr. Lopez, and two other crew members.  Mr. Jones was a 36-year-old fireman and farmer and left behind a wife and two daughters, age 12 and 8.  Mr. Lopez, 30, a helicopter mechanic, was survived by his wife and 5-year-old son.

The Case:

The electric lines were suspended above the Osage River, supported by two structures that were heavily covered and concealed  by trees, as well as other vegetation. The lines did not have marker balls on them, which make power lines visible to air traffic.

A lawsuit on behalf of the families of Mr. Jones and Mr. Lopez was tried in 1998 and a jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs in the amount of $5.25 million.  However, in 2000 the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the verdict upon appeal, basing its decision on improper juror instructions.

The Refiling:

The lawsuit was refiled in 2001. During the second trial, Morry S. Cole (a Gray Ritter Graham attorney and a licensed pilot) represented the family of Mr. Jones, the Army Reserves helicopter pilot.

The plaintiffs argued that Three Rivers Electric Cooperative was negligent and did not meet the industry standard of care when it did not place marker balls on the Osage River powerlines. The Osage River was an established low-level flying military training area, known as the Osage Route.

Per industry standards, Three Rivers should have taken into account the low-level flying that occurred in the area in the area and the dangers of its hard-to-see power lines.  Industry standards require that if the risk of power line strikes from low-lying aircraft is high, then such power lines need to be marked.  The supporting structures may need to be marked as well.

In trial, it was argued that the risk for the Three Rivers power lines above the Osage River was high and the lines, therefore, should have been marked.  It was also revealed during trial that the company marked the lines just three weeks after the fatal helicopter crash in 1994.  Morry Cole noted Three Rivers had the marker balls for three years prior to using them after so shortly after the crash.

The Verdict:

Plaintiff witness’ testimony was used to establish the area as a low-flying training area as well as revealing a previous aircraft crash into those same power lines and other previous near misses.

After four-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of $21 million in favor of the families of Mr. Jones and Mr. Lopez – four times the damages award in the first trial, which did not include the revelation that Three Rivers marked the power lines shortly after the fatal crash.

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