Written by Peter CarterUpdated on July 21, 2020
A cattle station overseer has sued Robinson Helicopters of California in Brisbane’s Supreme Court over an alleged maintenance system defect in its R22 helicopter arising out of a crash in May 2004 that seriously injured him and killed the pilot.
2002 built chopper was conducting fence inspection duties on the eastern perimeter of the 5994 sq km Tobermorey Station located immediately to the west of the Queensland-NT border. From a height of about 70 feet, pilot Kevin Norton saw a gap of the fence line and cattle tracks. Cattleman Graham McDermott directed a swing to the left and a landing nearby.
In the course of that manoeuvre, they heard a loud bang and massive vibrations that put the helicopter into a spin that Norton struggled to control. It landed heavily without engine power and burst into flames. McDermott escaped with serious injuries but pilot Norton did not survive.
The failure occurred as a result of the gradual failure of a bolt – connecting the main rotor gear box yoke to the flexplate – which had been insufficiently tensioned. McDermott’s company (NTB) purchased the used helicopter in April 2004 when it had already recorded about 496 hours in service. It sued Robinson under TPA provisions that allow recovery against manufacturers by persons injured by ‘defective products’.
He claimed Robinson had not spelled out in its Maintenance Manual, a sufficient inspection procedure to detect potential fatigue and fretting of flexplate bolts and had failed to specify servicing at intervals as short as every 25 hours of operation.
The date when the bolt was left loose could not be accurately determined but it was concluded to have possibly been when maintenance was carried out on 17 February 2004, or possibly after then. In his honour’s view, the mandated 100 hourly inspection requirements – to be performed by an aircraft engineer – were adequate. “Compliance with the Maintenance Manual was sufficient to prevent the accident.”
“It follows that Mr McDermott has failed to establish the existence of a defect in the goods supplied by Robinson”. He went on to find that any failure by McDermott or the pilot to identify the loose bolt during pre-flight inspections, could not be considered contributorily negligent.
“I am not prepared to find that the looseness of the bolt could have been detected by adequate pre-flight inspection in accordance with the Pilots Operating Handbook”. The trial on the liability issues against the helicopter manufacturer occupied the court for nearly 5 weeks.
The Queensland Court of Appeal reversed that decision by 2-1 majority, holding that the Maintenance Manual did not provide adequate instructions to detect the defect and thus that Robinson was liable. That decision was itself reversed by the High Court of Australia on 08/06/2016. McDermott’s claims against the maintenance organisations – the second and third defendants in the action – were presumably settled.