Last week, KOMO-TV, its aviation contractor, and the estate of the station’s late pilot agreed to a $40 million settlement with two men who were injured in an accident involving a news helicopter in 2014.
The two victims, Guillermo Sanchez and Richard Newman were injured when the helicopter did a nose-dive off the station’s rooftop and crashed into their cars. The accident killed veteran pilot Gary Pfitzner and photojournalist Bill Strothman.
In the five-week King County Superior Court trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys together argued that institutional safety failures created an accident waiting to happen. Then, the settlement came after testimony and new records emerged during the trial, which bolstered contentions by Sanchez and Newman that KOMO and its contractor ignored long-standing safety concerns about landing on the station’s rooftop helipad. Specifically, a pilot who once flew for KOMO testified that he quit his job after station management ignored his longstanding concerns about landing at the helipad. He also testified that the station’s news director cursed at him when he refused to refuel at the station’s helipad because of his concerns on how KOMO maintained its fuel system.
These concerns come in addition to the fact that pilot Pfitzner was not commercially certified to fly the helicopter utilized at the time of the crash, which was acting as a substitute to the Bell Chopper that he’d flown for years. In fact, Business Wire reports that the pilot spent less than five hours in training, and less than three hours of in-flight training in the substitute model.
Other testimony also pointed to organizational demands that the helicopter refuel at the station’s helipad, in downtown Seattle. The helipad is located approximately 75 feet above a four-story office building in a highly populated neighborhood. The evidence suggests that the demand to refuel at the station, rather than refueling at Renton Municipal Airport, was an attempt to cut costs.
The Seattle Times reported that a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) could not pinpoint why the pilot lost hydraulic boost while taking off. The probe found no mechanical problems; however, it noted that the hydraulic system had been too damaged in the fire to perform a proper examination. The NTSB’s final report, issued in September 2016, cited pilot error as the most likely cause of the accident. It theorized that Pfitzner had been operating the helicopter with an outdated preflight checklist and likely did not re-engage a hydraulic press button during takeoff.
Both Sanchez and Newman claimed that their lives were forever changed by the accident. Sanchez, a 46-year-old handyman, suffered shoulder and ankle injuries while escaping his burning truck. He also witnessed Pfitzner and Strothman perish in the aftermath. Newman, a 42-year-old clinical-trials manager, suffered serious burns and a head injury, forcing him to spend a month in Harborview Medical Center. Still today, he must actively avoid the sun to protect his grafted skin and has suffered memory loss and nightmares.
Although the agreement does not explicitly state that KOMO is no longer permitted to use the helipad, lawyers from both sides say that it is unlikely that the station will continue to use it, given the information that has emerged during the trial.