How does one compile 7 weeks of testimony and evidence, and 6 days of deliberation, into a single blog post? I have no idea! I really should have been writing this all along and just posted it when the case was over. Gosh you guys this is going to be a total mess...so sorry. Please forgive me, I make no claims that I am a good writer, or a master of proper writing form LOL. I will try to hit the main points but here are a few news links if you want more background.
There are a lot of stories out about it, I am sure you could look anywhere and find one. It is a pretty big case around here, with one of the highest awards given in the Multnomah county courthouses history. I will probably never again be in the position to give anyone over $70 million dollars. It was a tough case to hear, and I am not too embarrassed to admit to crying during more than a few of the witnesses testimony...and I was not the only one. We actually had 1 juror drop out on day 1, a week or so later we lost another juror to a mini stroke, and the very next day we lost another one to another medical condition. Good thing we started with 4 alternates, had 2 more people dropped out the judge would have had to declare a mistrial and start all over.
The case was brought against GE (and Sikorsky though they settled right after opening statements) by the co-pilot, Mr. Coultas, his wife, and the widow/estate of the pilot, Mr. Schwanenberg. This was involving one of the deadliest helicopter crashes in firefighting history. The crash happened 8/5/08, it was not lost on me that while these people were going through the worst time of their lives, I was going through the best time of mine. Hayden was the first of the triplets to come home from the NICU, and that was on 8/7/08, we saw very very graphic photos of an extremely burned and swollen Mr. Coultas while in a coma at the hospital dated 8/7/08.
He was on fire inside his suit, and suffered 4th degree burns over 1/3 of his body, and 3rd degree burns over much more. There were 13 people on board and sadly 9 died. Not only did they die, but upon medical examination it was found that they did not die of their injuries sustained in the crash. The injuries were not fatal, they were stuck in their seatbelts unable to get out, and were burned alive. Burning alive takes 3-5 agonizing min, even when their screams stopped it wasn't because they had died it was because their throats/vocal chords had been burned to the point they could not make sounds. I remember Mr. Coultas while he was on the stand saying "I know what it is like to be burned alive. I do not know what it is like to be burned to death like Roark, and those kids in back." I will never forget that, and I will never forget looking at the photos of the wreckage and the burned bodies, I hope I never have to see anything like that ever again....and I wish this verdict will help push GE to make the changes needed to see that this never happens again.
We were presented with so much, here is my take on the testimony and evidence presented to us that was most important in making my decision....
For the first 3-4 months after the accident there were internal GE emails saying the crash was due to contamination in the FCU causing sticking in the PRV valve and a power loss on the #2 engine. Which is what the plaintiffs' case stated. Then GE changed their story and argued that the helicopter was over weight and under powered...and even tossed some blame the pilots way.
The pilots were highly trained, very experienced professionals, with over 23,000 hours flight time. They had flown many flights that day alone, and all of them went perfectly. They even had a Forest Service check pilot with them, and he never reported any issues with the pilots or the helicopters weight at all. We listened to 2 hours of the cock pit voice recorder, the pilots were very consciences and on their stuff right up until the very end....which was beyond hard to hear. During the crash we heard the pilots begging for the helicopter to stay in the air "fly darling, fly darling, fly darling" followed by some totally appropriate cuss words when they started clipping trees. Then it went silent...I am thankful for that, I didn't want to hear what went on next. The pilots were so skilled and intune with their aircraft I have no doubt they would have felt if their helicopter was over weight and would have set it back down, they were not suicidal. Not to mention the eye witnesses, 6 of those coming to testify to the fact, that they saw the helicopter climb up over 80-100 feet...which would put them out of "ground effect", if the helicopter was too heavy it just would not have got out of ground effect. Another exact same model helicopter, that was even heavier than the accident helicopter, flew over the burning wreckage to drop water on it, it too had no problems due to weight. In fact there has never been a weight related crash reported on this model of helicopter, never, and it has been around for 50+ years. But there have been numerous and documented cases of sticking or stuck valves causing problems with the engines. None the less there was no proof that they were using the altered charts as everything was burned up, but even if they were, the simple fact that the helicopter got up out of ground effect and started flying away before having problems makes the weight and power charts a moot point. Not that we felt that it was ok at all for the company to screw around with the charts.
There was also a huge lack of debris damage to engine #2 when #1 had so much, that proved to us that the engine was already shut down when it crashed or else it would have sucked in just as much debris as #1. You wouldn't believe the difference in the amount of damage that the photos of engine #1 and #2 showed. #1 was just a mess, really filthy, bent, pieces snapped off, gouges...it looked like it had sucked up all kinds of debris due to going down. #2 was clean, not broken, no pieces missing...the thing looked almost brand new...you can't tell me it was running and it came out that clean and damage free. This fact also made us disbelieve GE's "flight path" that had the helicopter sitting in the dirt and dust with their rotor turning for so long before it lifted off. Had it sat as long as they said not only would they have been in a "brown out" due to how dirty and dusty the area was (the pilots had to have multiple water drops done on the area just so they could land and take off without kicking up too much debris) but both engines would have had even more dirt and dust and crap in them. Not buying it.
We were shown numerous emails from GE, to GE and internally among GE's own people that there had been issues with contamination in the fuel filter causing sticky and seizing valves. Some of the earliest of those emails dated back to 2002, 6 years before this deadly crash. There had been a couple close calls and even another accident, that thankfully had no fatalities though there were serious injuries. More emails were sent to GE, they were told numerous times it was "flight critical" and asked repeatedly to fix it, by improving the filter they used. We were shown many GE responses that made it clear they were passing the buck to everyone else, saying how so and so should take care of the issue, there were even emails saying they didn't want to put out "time and money for little return" when talking about changing the filters. Many of us found the GE employees that came to testify, and the Sikorsky people that came to testify for GE, a bit slimy. How funny that before Sikorsky settled GE was pointing the finger at Sikorsky but then called them to be witnesses on their behalf. I have to admit thanks to the show 'Lie To Me'...I really hate that they canceled it,by the way, I was watching people closely as they testified. Watching for 'tells' ...swallows, drinks, eye movements, hand movements, etc. Lets just say I am no expert at deception, but I didn't take everyone at their word. Many of us thought it a bit too much when they all got up on the stand and said email after email, and meeting min after meeting min. where they were saying it was power loss and contamination issues were all wrong, or poorly written or other wise didn't mean what they wrote. Yet no one ever issued any retractions or corrected their errors at the time. Hmmmm.
GE didn't report to the FAA on previous engine malfunctions, or this one after the fact. GE, nor anyone else for that matter, never sent out a safety or alert bulletin warning the pilots and crew...the people actually flying these things that there have been a number of stuck or seized valves due to contamination. GE kept pointing the finger at someone else to do it, kept pointing to the air frame filter instead of the problem filter, the 'Last Chance" filter. The filter that they were using was not fine enough to catch the contamination before it got into the engine, let through the debris that causes the valves to stick and seize. They were, and still are because still to this day they have not fixed it, using a 40 micron filter when it needs to be a 10. Yet interestingly enough their new $200 million dollar contracts for refurbished if you will helicopters have the 10 micron filter going on them.
The NTSB info that we did get to see, the interview of the co-pilot, who was fresh out of his almost 2 week long coma and was on powerful pain meds like Methadone and Percocet and a couple others, was not given much weight. Also the sound spectrum analysis had a lot of missing data and was just not doing it for many of the jurors.
The pictures of the contamination found in the PRV, the reports of many other PRVs with contamination issues. I really didn't care what kind of contamination it was, where it came from or even how big or how much was there. The fact is there should be none and there was, so the filter was not adequate.
In the jury room we started off with 7 very very strong for the plaintiffs, 2 really strong for the defense, 1 that was on the plaintiff side but not 100% and 2 on the fence. We needed a min of 9 on the same side to render a verdict one way or the other. While my mind was made up already, if it was my husband or son or brother involved in this you can bet your ass I would have blamed GE. They make billions and they couldn't get the proper filter put on their enginge so their engine could run without getting contamination that could cause their engine to fail, and then to never send out a safety bulletin to warn pilots...yeah it was an easy one for me. None the less it took 6 days and some ups and downs to get everyone on the same page, but in the end we found for the plaintiffs. We found GE 57% at fault, 23% went on Carson and 20% on Sikorsky...though only GE will be party to our verdict. We had to add up everyone's % and then divide them to get an average, as we were all at different %'s of fault. I myself, and 3-4 others had GE up at 80% with 10% on each of the other two, but something is better than nothing.
The widow/estate of Mr. Schwanenberg was awarded just over $28 million dollars...$11 million of that for the pre death pain and suffering that Mr. Schwanenberg went through. Mr. Coultas was awarded $38 million dollars and Mrs. Coultas $4.3 million dollars.
It is a lot of money, but these people had their lives changed forever. The plaintiffs attorney also said something that really stuck with us. This money is not a reward, you don't reward someone for losing their husband or father, or for having life as they knew it end. This was compensation, sure; but it was also a punishment to those responsible. So many things could have been done in the 6 years prior to the crash when GE knew about the problem. When you are talking about something as dangerous as flying already is, you have to "defend in depth" and what they did was not even close to enough. We found them negligent because a reasonable person...like those of us on the jury, would have done more to protect people from harm.
Some of us would have given more, and would have found for punitive but we didn't have the 9 needed to do it.
There is no way the pilots were at fault, and our hats are off to them. They bravely did all they could to not harm the 30 or so people still on the ground right below them while they fought with the crashing helicopter, then they crashed the helicopter in a spot that would allow for those that did survive and could get out to do so. Being on a mountain side, if they had not brought it down in the trees it would have just rolled down the mountain in a fire ball and no one would have survived. They were heroes, and I hope they know it.
I wanted to add the names of the brave men who died in this, totally preventable, crash. It never should have happened, and I hope it never will again.
Killed were Mr. Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine; 63-year-old Jim Ramage, a forest service employee from Redding, Calif.; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.
I am sorry for those that lost loved ones in the crash. So very sad :(
This whole experience, and the flack our decision is getting by many, has really opened my eyes to how judging a jury for their decision when you weren't there for the whole trial, don't know what evidence they were or were not given and weren't in on the jury deliberations is pretty sucky. Though I am sure we all, me included, will still do it (hello OJ and Casey Anthony.) From now on I will for sure try to keep in mind what the jury may have been told during the course of the trial that I don't know and think twice about their decision, maybe their heads are not up their asses at all, maybe they got it right. I have no regrets, I think we got it right.
Some pics from inside our jury room.
11 of the 12 of us went out for lunch, and a much needed drink, after the verdict was in.
I know I am leaving so much out...I am happy to give further detail, debate this issue or answer questions...just leave me comments.