The estate of a South Korean businessman killed in a 2007 helicopter crash near Easton, Kittitas County, has filed a wrongful-death suit against the California manufacturer of the helicopter and a Seattle company that operated the aircraft.

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The estate of a South Korean businessman killed in a 2007 helicopter crash near Easton, Kittitas County, has filed a wrongful-death suit against the California manufacturer of the helicopter and a Seattle company that operated the aircraft.

The suit, filed Sept. 29 in King County Superior Court, alleges that the helicopter’s fuel system and tail rotor system were unsafe, causing the death of Si Young Lee, 45, the president of a South Korean furniture company who was visiting Washington to inspect export-grade timber.

Three other people, including the pilot, also were killed and the crash sparked a 485-acre wildfire.

A spokeswoman for Robinson Helicopter, the Torrance, Calif., manufacturer of the R44 II helicopter that crashed, declined to comment, saying the company doesn’t discuss pending litigation.

Classic Helicopter, the operator of the helicopter, declined to comment on allegations that it knew or should have known about the purported defects.

The crash occurred on Aug. 2, 2007, after Lee, his business partner, Hyun Song, and Robert Hagerman, 64, an Everett timber broker, flew in the helicopter over the Cascades to a logging site. The helicopter was flown from Boeing Field in Seattle by Keiko Minakata, 41, Classic’s chief flight instructor.

Minutes after the helicopter left the logging site for a return trip, it crashed and burst into flames.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found last year that the crash resulted from pilot error. The pilot, flying downhill, attempted a “downwind takeoff” in high-density altitude conditions, the safety board concluded, noting that the craft’s operation at 77 pounds over the limit for existing conditions and a gusty tail wind were contributing factors.

A witness told the NTSB that the helicopter went up about 40 feet and, after it traveled 100 to 150 feet, began to wobble and sway with an unusual sound. The craft flew another 100 to 150 feet and was “wobbling” before it hit the ground as the wind was blowing downhill, the witness reported.

The NTSB report didn’t cite defects with the helicopter.

The lawsuit alleges the helicopter experienced a mechanical failure and hit the ground at low speed.

All aboard “actually survived the crash,” but a design flaw caused the fatal fire, according to a news release issued by the Los Angeles law firm representing Lee’s wife, his daughter and son and his parents.

“We don’t think this thing crashed because of a pilot error,” said Ilyas Akbari, an attorney for the firm.

A preliminary Federal Aviation Administration report pointed to a tail rotor malfunction, Akbari said.

Even if there was pilot error, the fire could have been prevented by strengthening the gas tank or enclosing the fuel in a resilient, airtight bladder, at a fraction of the helicopter’s $400,000 cost, Akbari said.

Robinson issued a safety notice in July 2006 noting that occupants of helicopter and light planes had survived accidents but suffered severe burns from post-crash fires, according to a copy provided by the law firm.

The notice was issued after dozens of crashes of Robinson R44 helicopters around the world, Akbari said.

Robinson strongly recommended that occupants wear fire-retardant flight suits, gloves and a hood or a helmet

Akbari said is not possible to wear the suits every time people fly in a helicopter. Robinson’s own employees don’t do so, the suit alleges.

No other suits have been filed in the Easton crash, Akbari said. But settlements for undisclosed sums apparently were reached in the deaths of Song and Hagerman and possibly the pilot, he said.

Robinson declined to comment on settlements. It is the largest maker of nonmilitary or nongovernment helicopters worldwide, and has produced more than 9,000 light helicopters since its founding in 1973.

The suit also names a Bellevue company that leased the helicopter to Classic. That firm has dissolved, Akbari said.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com