The state Court of Appeals has overturned a $21.7 million judgment in a case involving the crash of an air ambulance in Clay County that killed three people.
The appeals panel ruled that the circuit judge who handled the case incorrectly barred some evidence, hurting the defense of the company that made the helicopter and was being sued.
The appeals panel sent the case back to the lower court for further action.
If there is no further appeal of the ruling to the state Supreme Court, or if that court upholds the appeals decision, there could be a new trial in the case.
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The lawsuit arose from the June 2013 crash of an Air Evac EMS helicopter.
The crew was returning to a base in Manchester after taking a patient to the hospital in London when the helicopter, a Bell 206 L-1, came apart in the air and crashed into a the parking lot of an elementary school about 750 feet from the helipad.
The crash killed all those on board: pilot Eddy Sizemore, 61, a retired sheriff’s deputy from Laurel County; flight paramedic Herman “Lee” Dobbs, 40, of London; and flight nurse Jesse Jones, 28, of Pineville.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the crash likely happened because Sizemore became disoriented after flying into fog and made a maneuver that placed too much stress on the helicopter, causing it to break up.
However, eight family members of the victims argued in a lawsuit that the crash happened because of a defect in the main rotor blade of the helicopter, not pilot error.
Attorneys for the families argued the defect — a void between the aluminum cover of the blade and its core — resulted in a fracture of the blade that caused extreme vibration, tearing the helicopter apart.
The jury in Clay County accepted that argument, ruling against Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.
The jury ruled Bell had distributed or sold the main rotor blade in a defective, unreasonably dangerous condition and that the defect was a substantial factor in the crash.
The jury also ruled that Sizemore did not act negligently and that his actions in flying the helicopter were not a substantial factor in the crash.
The jury awarded the family members a total of $21,730,135 in damages, one of the biggest awards ever in a product-liability case in Eastern Kentucky.
Bell, which argued its product was not defective, appealed.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals rejected some claims of error in the trial by attorneys for Bell Helicopter, but found that one error in particular did hurt the company’s case.
That misstep concerned testimony from a former Bell Helicopter employee.
The trial judge admitted a portion of the man’s testimony that seemed to indicate Bell knew of rotor defects in two earlier crashes, but would not allow jurors to hear testimony in which he clarified he did not think there was a rotor defect involved in the Manchester crash, according to the appeals decision.
The trial judge disallowed the testimony after ruling it was based on improper questioning, but the Court of Appeals disagreed, saying it was “unfair and prejudicial to only admit selective parts” of the man’s testimony.
Attorneys for the families declined comment Friday.
Bell Helicopter said in a statement that if there is a new trial, “Bell will have the opportunity to present evidence that the first jury did not have an opportunity to hear.”