Ex-officers sue over '97 crash in copter Similarities in condition of engine with craft from recent incident are noted

November 13, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Two former Baltimore police officers injured when their police helicopter crashed last year filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit yesterday against the companies that made and maintained the aircraft's engine, charging the companies did not use "reasonable care" to ensure safety.

The filing of the suit in Baltimore Circuit Court comes eight days after another police helicopter crash claimed the life of the officer piloting the craft and seriously injured his partner.

Federal Aviation Administration investigators said last week that they found similarities in the condition of the engines of the helicopter that crashed in Northeast Baltimore on July 17, 1997, and the one that crashed Nov. 4 at the B&O Railroad Museum. The investigators have not determined the cause of this month's crash.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier ordered that the helicopters be grounded indefinitely after last week's crash because of safety concerns.

Marc S. Rosen, an attorney who filed suit yesterday on behalf of former officers John J. Smith and Bobby Joe Lawson, noted that last week's crash and the 1997 accident involving his clients involved "catastrophic engine failure."

"It indicates a lack of sophistication and effort in maintenance and a disregard for safety," he said this week.

In the suit, Rosen seeks $21 million for Smith, a police observer in the helicopter, and his wife and $7 million for Lawson, who was piloting the craft, and his wife.

Rosen said that Smith, now 40, took disability retirement from the city's force after sustaining several injuries in the crash -- including fractures to several ribs, the pelvis and right knee and ankle. Lawson, 50, who was less severely injured, took regular retirement after the crash and is seeking a position as a deputy sheriff near his home in Quinton, Va.

The suit names as defendants Textron-Lycoming, the engine's manufacturer; T.W. Smith Engine Co., which overhauled the engine; and Helicopter Transport Services Inc., which owned and maintained the helicopter and leased it to the Police Department under a controversial 1996 arrangement.

Spokeswomen for Textron-Lycoming, of Williamsport, Pa., and T.W. Smith, of Cincinnati, declined to comment on the suit.

A representative of HTS, who declined to give his name, said it would be improper for the Martin State Airport-based company to comment until a final report on last year's crash is issued by the National Transportation Safety Board. That report will contain the NTSB's conclusions about the probable cause of the accident.

However, a "factual report" by the NTSB on the crash -- describing pertinent facts and circumstances -- found that a connecting rod had pierced the engine's casing and that several parts installed in an engine overhaul were incompatible.

The holes in the engine casing were similar to two holes found in the casing of the engine of the helicopter that crashed last week, killing Officer Barry W. Wood and injuring his partner, Officer Mark A. Keller.

HTS is also a defendant in a separate negligence lawsuit in U.S. District Court by two former officers injured in a 1992 helicopter crash. That federal lawsuit also names as a defendant the helicopter's manufacturer, Schweizer Aircraft Corp., of Elmira, N.Y.

HTS had provided maintenance for years for the city police helicopter unit, founded in 1971. But in 1996, the city sold its three police helicopters to HTS, which maintained the aircraft and leased them back to the city.

The wisdom of the deal was questioned at the time by Gary Mclhinney, the head of the police union, who worried it could compromise officer safety.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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