The settlement comes after testimony and new records emerged in the final stages of a weekslong civil trial bolstering contentions by the victims that KOMO and Helicopters Inc. ignored long-standing safety concerns.
KOMO-TV, its aviation contractor and the estate of the station’s late pilot have agreed to a $40 million settlement with two men who were injured when a news helicopter nose-dived off the station’s rooftop near Seattle’s Space Needle four years ago and crashed into their cars.
The settlement, read in open court Monday, came after testimony and new records emerged in the final stages of the weekslong civil trial bolstering contentions by surviving crash victims Guillermo Sanchez and Richard Newman that Sinclair Broadcast-owned KOMO and its contractor, Helicopters Inc., ignored long-standing safety concerns about landing on the station’s rooftop helipad.
In depositions leading up to the case, officials for the contractor had “already admitted they and KOMO were liable for this accident” — by violating safety terms in their contract and conceding the pilot had made a mistake, said David Beninger, the Seattle attorney who represented Newman.
“Then, they spent a lot of time during this trial trying to walk that admission back,” Beninger added. “At the end of the day, the evidence was pretty overwhelming — this was the wrong pilot with the wrong helicopter landing in the wrong place.”
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Under the settlement, neither KOMO nor Helicopters Inc. admitted wrongdoing for the fiery crash on March 18, 2014, that killed veteran pilot Gary Pfitzner and photojournalist Bill Strothman, and injured Sanchez and Newman as they sat in their vehicles on a street next to the news station.
Steven Rosen, the lawyer for both the aviation contractor and news station, did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.
In a news story about the settlement Monday afternoon, KOMO reported that its “only involvement was that it contracted with the company called Helicopters Inc.” The story did not specify the amount of the settlement.
The aviation contractor’s insurance company is expected to cover the cost, a spokesman for Sinclair said.
Airbus, which manufactured the AS 350 AStar helicopter that crashed, is the only defendant not party to the $40 million settlement. Steve Fogg, one of Airbus’ lawyers, noted Monday the firm’s exclusion shows it wasn’t culpable.
“Nobody in a position of authority — from the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), to the people who were tragically injured in this case — ever blamed the helicopter,” Fogg said. “The only parties that sought to blame the helicopter were the operator and television station who themselves were single-handedly responsible.”
Sanchez and Newman had contended Helicopters Inc. and KOMO owner Sinclair were responsible for the crash by disregarding the pilot’s inexperience in the substitute copter used during the ill-fated mission.
During an April 2017 deposition, Helicopter Inc.’s vice president of operations, Jeffrey Lieber, testified his firm felt pressured by KOMO to land at the rooftop helipad instead of Renton Municipal Airport because KOMO wanted to save money on fuel by using its own fuel tank on the helipad.
Janene Drafs, KOMO’s general manager, disputed the deposition of her co-defendant, testifying earlier this month that she couldn’t find any emails or other documentation showing the contractor had raised safety concerns to KOMO.
And Rosen, the lawyer representing both defendants, countered the crash was caused by a defective part in the copter’s rotor — a problem the defense argued was discovered only late last year after separate investigations by the NTSB and the contracting firm found no mechanical failures and concluded pilot error was likely to blame.
Monday’s settlement came after key documents and testimony surfaced late during the trial from a former pilot for KOMO and another witness who’d read about recent coverage about the case in The Seattle Times, Beninger said.
Darren Ellenwood, a Helicopters Inc. pilot who once flew for KOMO, testified Thursday he quit his job after station management ignored his longstanding concerns about landing at the helipad.
During Ellenwood’s first flight for KOMO in 2011, he added, Pftizner raised his own concerns about landing at the station’s helipad.
“As we were landing, he says, ‘I hate landing up here, but we have to land here because this is where we’re supposed to refuel,’ ” Ellenwood testified.
Ellenwood added that the station’s news director swore at him when he initially refused to refuel at the station’s helipad because of his worries about how KOMO maintained its fuel system. He also testified that his concerns about landing above “very busy streets” led him to leave a note in his home safe with instructions for his wife if he died in a crash, and that he once refused the station’s order to land at the helipad after a snowstorm.
“I didn’t want to blow snow off the roof and hit somebody on the ground with snow falling, I don’t know, 70 or 80 feet,” Ellenwood said.
Another key piece of evidence to emerge last weekend was an email sent to Drafs on the day of the crash. Under the subject line: “URGENT: Information for Investigation,” Mischelle Davis, the operations director for a law firm near the news station, offered to give Drafs photos of a recent photo shoot that captured a nearby construction crane seemingly too close to the helipad.
“As you know, I was on the helipad just last week,” Davis wrote. “I have lots of photographs … During the shoot, we frequently commented on how dangerously close the crane is to the helipad.”
Drafs responded about three hours later by thanking Davis, but declining her offer.
“Eye witnesses now confirm that the helicopter lifted only about 10 feet off the ground before nose-diving then flipping over completely,” she wrote. “There could not have been interference that close … I am telling you, but asking you of course not to share any of this information yet.”
Beninger noted that throughout the trial, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer “had real concerns on (the defendants’) compliance with the rules and full and timely disclosure as is required.”
Drafs did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Sanchez and Newman claim their lives were forever changed because of the accident. Sanchez, 46, a handyman from Mountlake Terrace, suffered shoulder and ankle injuries, and Newman, 42, a clinical-trials manager and Seattle resident, was severely burned when the copter crashed into their vehicles.
Both Beninger and Alisa Brodkowitz, the aviation lawyer who represented Sanchez, said no money will be able to fully restore their respective clients’ lives, but will help them deal with ongoing medical problems into the future.
Though the agreement doesn’t explicitly require KOMO to no longer use the helipad, both lawyers say it’s unlikely the station will do so given the information that has emerged during the trial. KOMO has removed the fuel tank from the rooftop and hasn’t landed a copter there since the crash, Drafs testified.
“I think we feel that Seattle’s skies are safer with a settlement such as this,” Brodkowitz said Monday.