Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Robinson R44, N19DV: Accident occurred August 21, 2009 in Tonopah, Nevada

National Transportation Safety Board - Aviation Accident Final Report: http://app.ntsb.gov/pdf 

National Transportation Safety Board  -  Docket And Docket Items:   http://dms.ntsb.gov/pubdms

National Transportation Safety Board  -  Aviation Accident Data Summary: http://app.ntsb.gov/pdf

NTSB Identification: WPR09LA411
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, August 21, 2009 in Tonopah, NV
Probable Cause Approval Date: 05/26/2011
Aircraft: ROBINSON R44, registration: N19DV
Injuries: 3 Serious.

NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The pilot was providing aerial surveillance of a car that was in an off-road rally race. A passenger recalled that they had just climbed over a hill, and made a low banking turn to get behind a car that was in the race. He saw a steep cliff-like ridge ahead, and was concerned about hitting it. As they cleared the ridge by about 20 feet, he heard the engine sound change pitch. The helicopter banked right, and slowed down. The passenger heard the pilot say "no" several times as well as “come on,” followed by the sounding of a horn. The helicopter collided with the ground, touching down on the skids. The helicopter turned as it went downhill, and rolled over onto its right side. A postaccident examination of the airframe and engine revealed no anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. The density altitude was calculated to be about 10,300 feet. Examination of the performance charts for the helicopter indicated that, at the weather parameters for this flight, the power required for the maneuvers attempted exceeded the power available.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot’s failure to maneuver the helicopter within its performance capabilities while at a low altitude in mountainous terrain and in high density altitude conditions.

Michelle Nunley says all she could think about as she plunged to earth in a crippled helicopter was her husband and six children: “Who was going to take care of them?”

Miraculously, Nunley survived the 2009 crash in the Nevada desert. But what happened to the Tulare Union High School principal over the next five years can best be described as a legal nightmare, her lawyer says.

This month, a Fresno County Superior Court jury awarded Nunley $805,000 in damages after finding her lawyer, Charles M. Barrett, and his employer, the Sacramento law firm of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood, had committed malpractice in filing a lawsuit against the helicopter company.

The defendants are refusing to pay the jury’s award. In fact, the law firm plans to file post-trial motions that could dramatically reduce it, says Sacramento attorney Mark Ellis, who represents Dreyer Babich.

Nunley’s attorney, Ken Fitzgerald of Visalia, says he’s stunned: “They want to continue to put my client and her family through hell.”

Nunley’s bio reads like a made-for-television movie — a hometown girl who got a credential so she could teach science at her alma mater, Class of 1990. In 2004, she earned a doctorate degree, which helped her ascend to Tulare High principal in 2006.

Her storybook career is rivaled by her personal life: She and husband Greg Nunley, a local developer, are raising five children of their own and building a new home in Tulare. Yet she didn’t hesitate to help when she found out one of her students, who was having trouble in school as a freshman, had been abandoned and was bouncing around foster care.

She invited the boy to live with her family, became his guardian, and made sure he was doing his homework. That boy is Romello Harris, one of the best high school running backs in the San Joaquin Valley. Harris has a 4.0 GPA and a scholarship offer to Duke.

Her life today is remarkable given what happened Aug. 20, 2009, the day she stepped into a Robinson R-44 helicopter to watch her husband participate in an off-road race from Las Vegas to Reno. An hour into the flight, the helicopter crashed in a ravine about 25 miles west of Tonopah, Nev.

Nunley suffered a broken back, a broken thumb and lacerations and bruises to her body. She is permanently disabled and lives in constant pain, Fitzgerald says.

She needed help with her recovery, so she turned to Dreyer Babich, one of the premier personal injury law firms in California. It is anchored by Roger Dreyer, a “Top Ten Super Lawyer of Northern California” who has tried more than 125 civil jury trials and obtained several multimillion-dollar jury verdicts.

Court records say Dreyer assured Michelle Nunley he would work with Barrett, who worked out of the firm’s Fresno office, on the helicopter lawsuit.

Nunley knew of Dreyer’s reputation (he had previously represented her uncle) but didn’t know Barrett had a long record of discipline by the State Bar of California since 1995. Barrett, who has been practicing law since 1980, was on probation when he dealt with the Nunley family. Barrett no longer works for the Dreyer Babich firm, says its civil attorney, Ellis. Barrett says he’s now in private practice in Fresno.

Dreyer and Barrett, who are high school buddies, referred questions to Ellis, who says the firm offered to settle the lawsuit for $325,000. The Nunleys wanted “more than $3 million,” he says.

Fitzgerald says Dreyer Babich’s offer would not have covered Michelle Nunley’s past and future medical bills. He says he’s frustrated by the big firm: “It’s cases like this that give lawyers a bad name.”

Untangling the crash

Fitzgerald says the helicopter “looked like someone had stepped on an aluminum can.”

The legal issues that have followed are nearly as tangled.

There were two others in the helicopter: owner-pilot David Vanyo and passenger Victor Rangel, an acquaintance of Vanyo who wanted to watch the race from the air. Fitzgerald says Greg Nunley and Vanyo had done business in the past, so as a favor Vanyo took Michelle Nunley along for the ride.

After the crash, Vanyo’s insurance company offered to pay $1 million to be split between Michelle Nunley and Rangel. Because Nunley’s injuries were more serious than Rangel’s, she sought help from Dreyer Babich.

On Aug. 25, 2010, Nunley signed a contingency-fee agreement with Dreyer Babich. Court records say Dreyer assured Nunley in a telephone call that “he would be working with Barrett on their case and would be overseeing everything and that Barrett was a very good attorney.”

Though the crash was in Nevada, Barrett sued Vanyo and the manufacturer, Robinson Helicopter Co., in Tulare County Superior Court for personal injury and product liability. Meantime, Rangel filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona against Vanyo and the Nunleys. Vanyo lives and works in Arizona.

The Nunleys contacted Barrett, who told them he would take care of the Arizona suit, court records say.

The Nunleys’ lawsuit fell apart in December 2011, when the Tulare County court ruled it had no jurisdiction because the crash happened elsewhere. Then in April 2012, the Nunleys were hit with an $800,000 judgment in the Arizona complaint because Barrett and his firm failed to fight it, court documents show.

The Nunleys settled with Rangel. He would get $800,000 from Vanyo’s $1 million insurance policy; she would get $200,000.

Suing in Fresno County

In November 2012, the Nunleys sued Barrett and his firm, now known as Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, in Fresno County for malpractice.

The trial in Judge Jeffrey Hamilton’s courtroom took nearly seven weeks. Fitzgerald says the Nunleys spent more than $100,000 on expert witnesses.

After four day of deliberations, the jury said Barrett and the law firm acted below the standard of care in filing the helicopter lawsuit in Tulare County and that Michelle and Greg Nunley did nothing wrong in suing them for malpractice. Ellis says Hamilton dismissed the Arizona action before it reached the jury.

In deciding liability, jurors found Barrett was 53% responsible for the $805,000 in damages and the law firm was 47% responsible.

No money has changed hands. Ellis says the law firm is entitled to recover court costs and a judgment against Greg Nunley because he was initially a plaintiff in the civil action but lost all of his claims against Dreyer, Barrett and the law firm. Dreyer also was dismissed from Michelle Nunley’s suit.

“We feel the claims made against Mr. Dreyer individually were really frivolous and made in an attempt to force the case to settle,” Ellis says, noting that the Nunleys initially demanded nearly $7 million to settle the case.

In addition, Ellis says Barrett and the firm did not err in filing the helicopter suit in Tulare County. He says post-trial motions will show it was the appropriate place to file the lawsuit.

To which Fitzgerald throws up his hands.

“For seven weeks, all they did was blame the Nunleys. It’s time for them to take responsibility for their screw-up.”

- Source:  http://www.fresnobee.com

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