Military cargo helicopters, such as the CH-47F Chinook and the CH-53E Super Stallion, perform invaluable transport functions for the U.S. military. Unfortunately, helicopters also crash more frequently than planes– the helicopter accident rate per 100,000 flying hours is more than 40 times the accident rate for fixed-wing planes. Even more unfortunately, plaintiffs in civil lawsuits involving military activities face legal obstacles that are considerably more burdensome than plaintiffs in lawsuits involving civilian activities.
Causes of Helicopter Accidents
A helicopter is a complex piece of machinery. The more complex a system becomes, the more opportunities exist for malfunctions to occur. Although it would be impossible to list every single possible cause for a helicopter accident, a few of the most common are listed below:
- Inadequate or improper helicopter maintenance
- Operating under unsafe conditions such as inclement weather or extremely low altitude
- Inadequate pilot training
- Electrical shorts
- Defective design or manufacture of helicopter components such as rotor blades, landing gear, gears or drive shafts
- Inadequate lubrication
- Inadequate flight planning (involving low-altitude flights near power lines, for example)
Suing the Military — The Sovereign Immunity Problem
Helicopter accidents result in serious injury or death far more often than accidents involving most other types of vehicles. Although injured victims or grieving relatives of deceased victims are entitled to compensation for their losses, the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity greatly restricts the ability of a potential plaintiff to sue the U.S. government or the military for damages, especially if the plaintiff is an active-duty soldier or family member. Even civilian contractors working for the military can rely on the government contractor defense to shield themselves from liability in many cases.
The Military Claims Act provides certain exceptions to the general rule that accident victims cannot sue the government for damages. Generally, the exceptions under the Military Claims Act are limited to claims asserted by veterans or military dependents that arise from the misconduct of military or civilian personnel incident to non-combat military operations. Moreover, the Federal Tort Claims Act allows civilians to file lawsuits arising from military cargo helicopter accidents under certain circumstances. Scenarios in which a loophole might apply include:
- The accident is caused by negligent maintenance of a military cargo helicopter by a civilian contractor
- The accident is caused by defective components in a private cargo helicopter in an outsourced military support operation
- The helicopter was owned by a private party
- The civilian contractor was retained under a short-term, mission-specific contract.
It is said that a good lawyer can find ambiguity in a “No Smoking” sign. Indeed, the ambiguous nature of many of the exceptions to the sovereign immunity doctrine can provide exploitable opportunities for a skilled helicopter accident lawyer who is experienced in litigating aviation accidents. Navigating your way through the government bureaucracy, finding a loophole to support your claim, and pursuing your claim in court or at the settlement table all require a degree of legal expertise that is seldom possessed by non-lawyers.