Court Upholds $9-Million Verdict Against Bell Helicopters in Crash

Times Staff Writer

The California Supreme Court this week upheld a $9-million judgment against the world's largest helicopter manufacturer, sued in Orange County by the widow of a firefighting pilot whose chopper crashed when gas stopped flowing to its engine.

Bell Helicopter, a Textron Inc. company, had appealed the 2001 verdict, claiming that a federal law barred Sharon Hiser's lawsuit because the helicopter was more than 18 years old.

But the California Court of Appeal ruled in August that Bell had installed a new fuel system and warning devices within the 18-year period, effectively extending the Texas-based manufacturer's liability. Bell's argument, according to the appeal court's 25-page opinion, was a "red herring" because the statute was irrelevant in the case.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, the California Supreme Court let stand the lower court's opinion.

Attorneys for Bell could not be reached for comment Friday, said company spokesman Bob Leder.

Working as a U.S. Forest Service contract pilot, Floyd Hiser, 51, was dousing a San Bernardino County wildfire when his helicopter lost power and crashed on a canyon slope six years ago.

Federal investigators found that fuel had stopped flowing into the chopper's engine, although there appeared to be gas in the reserve tanks.

Defects in the design of the Bell 206L-1 LongRanger, one of about 1,700 produced in the 1980s and a model widely used by law enforcement, fire departments and television news crews, caused the fatal crash, an Orange County jury unanimously found in June 2001.

Lawyers for Bell had claimed that Hiser, a pilot for 20 years, had failed to put enough gas in the helicopter.

The case was heard in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana rather than in Texas because the suit originally named a local valve manufacturing firm as a co-defendant.

That firm was dismissed from the case.

Sharon Hiser, 54 and now living in Blythe, is hoping that the latest verdict will provide her closure, said her attorney, Douglas W. Schroeder of the Irvine law firm Speiser Krause.

"The money is nice," Schroeder said, "but that's not why she filed the suit. She'd also like to see them fix those helicopters."

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