Discovery settles wrongful death lawsuit over helicopter crash in Acton

Discovery has settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a cast member who was killed in a 2013 helicopter crash, which was one of the worst film set accidents in Los Angeles County in decades.

The family of Michael Donatelli, a 45-year-old decorated Iraq war veteran, sued Discovery after the crash in Acton, which occurred during filming of a Discovery Channel military show with the working title “Lone Operator.” The helicopter was flying close to the ground when it hit a slope, killing Donatelli, cameraman Darren Rydstrom and pilot David Gibbs.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge approved the settlement on Tuesday, said Kevin Boyle, a Los Angeles attorney representing Donatelli’s family. The settlement also ends a similar lawsuit brought by Rydstrom’s family. Terms were confidential.

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“The family is very hopeful that a lesson has been learned here and that steps will be taken in the future to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again,” said Boyle, a partner in Panish, Shea & Boyle.


The crash, which was highlighted in a Times report in March on the rise in fatal injuries in the film and TV industry, was the deadliest accident on a film set in Southern California since the 1982 “Twilight Zone: The Movie” crash near Santa Clarita that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children.

After retiring from the military in 2009, Donatelli launched his own security consulting firm in Pennsylvania when an old Army buddy contacted him about working on “Lone Operator.” Donatelli was acting as a consultant and narrator on the show.

Donatelli’s family in 2013 filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the producers, including Discovery and other companies, alleging that they did not take sufficient safety measures and were negligent in hiring Gibbs.

Records show that Gibbs did not have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in the early morning hours when the accident occurred. Gibbs had his pilot’s license suspended twice, including in 2003 over an incident in which he piloted a helicopter that flew into a power line as a crew was filming an episode of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” near Kingman, Ariz., according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.

Discovery and the other defendants disputed the claims. A spokeswoman for Discovery declined to comment on the settlement.

On the same Acton ranch where Donatelli and his colleagues were killed, 48-year-old diver Michael Bridger drowned five months earlier. The Redondo Beach resident was cleaning a 24-foot-deep water tank to be used in an underwater scene for the Walt Disney Studios movie “The Lone Ranger,” a big-budget western starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.

State regulators fined the film’s producer, Silver Bullet Productions, more than $60,000 for serious violations, including not having a standby diver available, not providing a medical examination to determine an employee’s fitness to dive and not having a dive master to oversee the work.

Twitter: @rverrier


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