CHARLOTTESVILLE — The widows of two Virginia State Police officers who died in a helicopter crash in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, have filed wrongful death lawsuits seeking $50 million each.
Amanda Bates and Karen Cullen both filed their separate lawsuits Monday, naming the commonwealth of Virginia, the secretary of public safety and homeland security, and the Virginia State Police as defendants.
Berke M.M. Bates, 40, and H. Jay Cullen, 48, had been monitoring the white supremacist Unite the Right rally. Footage from their helicopter recently was used as evidence in the murder trials of neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr.
In the late afternoon of Aug. 12, 2017, on the way to monitor then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s motorcade, their helicopter crashed, leaving both men dead.
“As they hovered in position to ensure the safety of the Governor of Virginia’s motorcade, the helicopter was seen to pitch up and down suddenly, and as they attempted to regain control, the helicopter crashed into the ground and burst into flames,” the complaint reads.
“Both [Bates] and [Cullen] perished in the conflagration that enveloped the helicopter primarily due to the lack of proper maintenance and repair of the helicopter by agents and/or employees of the Virginia State Police, PSHS and/or Commonwealth of Virginia, and their failure to comply with all necessary or appropriate service bulletins or airworthiness directives, such as the ones described above.”
According to the lawsuits, the helicopter — a Bell 407 manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron Canada — was difficult to maintain and had a history of malfunctions and repairs.
“From the outset, the Bell 407 demonstrated itself to be a maintenance nightmare with many Service Bulletins and Airworthiness Directives mandating that certain inspections and maintenance be performed to keep it flying (airworthy),” the complaint reads.
Among the specific issues cited in the complaint are: fuel control malfunctions that caused it to enter into a state insufficient for the engine to power the helicopter, problems with the tail rotor drive shaft, and flight control malfunctions.
Due to negligence from the defendants, there was nothing the troopers could have done to prevent their deaths, the complaint argues.
Bates’ and Cullen’s “fear of impending death is unspeakable as every pilot knows that loss of control and power in a helicopter at a low altitude in a hover is a doomsday sentence such that no matter what step was or could be taken to save themselves, it was an exercise in futility, and that death was certain by hideous mutilation,” the complaint reads.
Because of a loss of financial contributions, companionship and care, the families of the troopers are seeking $50 million, $350,000 in punitive damages plus prejudgment interest and other costs.
In June, the widows filed wrongful death lawsuits in Albemarle County Circuit Court against the Rolls-Royce Corp., which manufactured the Rolls-Royce Allison 250 engine used in the chopper.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported that investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board still are not close to rendering a final verdict on why the aircraft fell out of the sky.
Soon after the crash, the NTSB estimated its final report would be completed within 12 to 18 months. It’s now 24 months and counting, and a spokesman for the NTSB said that the final decision is not expected until next year.
The preliminary NTSB report, released a little less than a month after the crash, suggested that mechanical failure of the aircraft’s main rotor system or tail rotor likely caused it to spin out of control and crash, according to an aviation expert who reviewed the report in September 2017 for The Times-Dispatch. According to the report, the helicopter began to spin or rotate on its vertical axis and then descend nose-down, continuously spinning, before it was no longer visible before the tops of surrounding trees.
Last year, the General Assembly appropriated $1.9 million for fiscal 2020 as the first-year debt payment for a new $6 million Bell 407 similar to the one that crashed. Lawmakers also allocated money for a new medical evacuation helicopter . Delivery of the new helicopters is expected in 2020.