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The Globe and Mail

Sikorsky sued over chopper crash that killed 17

The wreckage of Cougar Helicopter flight 491.

Paul Daly/Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

A lawsuit claiming damages of almost $27-million accuses Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of "reckless behaviour and willful misconduct" in the Cougar helicopter crash that killed 17 people off Newfoundland.

Cougar Helicopters and eight insurance companies led by Lloyds of London make the allegations in a statement of claim filed in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The claims have not been proven in court and statements of defence have not been filed.

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"We don't ever comment on litigation," Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said Thursday from Connecticut, where the company is based.

Also named as defendants are the federal minister of transport and Helicopter Support Inc., Sikorsky's parts and repair subsidiary.

The lawsuit claims almost $27-million for combined damages and losses from the crash on March 12, 2009 that killed 17 of 18 people onboard.

It says Sikorsky used a "flawed" analysis to claim its helicopter could run without oil in its main gearbox for 30 minutes.

The pilots of Cougar Flight 491 reported a loss of pressure in the chopper's main gearbox about 11 minutes before plunging into the North Atlantic.

"By promoting and advertising the S-92 as having a '30-minute run-dry' capacity, Sikorsky fraudulently misrepresented to buyers and operators the airworthiness and flight safety of the S-92," says the claim.

"Such false pretense was made solely for the purpose of earning sales revenue" and showed "callous disregard for the risk of death or injury to crews and passengers of the S-92."

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Cougar Flight 491 was taking workers to the White Rose and Hibernia oil fields more than 300 kilometres east of St. John's when the pilots reported a loss of oil pressure in the main gearbox that powers the aircraft's rotor drive.

The statement of claim says it was the crew's first hint of trouble.

"Upon that observation ... the crew elected not to ditch the helicopter but immediately turned the helicopter towards the nearest landfall, which was well within 30 minutes flying time," says the claim.

Minutes after heading for shore, the Sikorsky S-92 pitched into the frigid sea about 55 kilometres east of St. John's. Sole survivor Robert Decker was rescued after more than an hour in the water.

The lawsuit cites as the "immediate" cause of the disaster the failure of two of the three titanium studs that secure the oil filter bowl assembly to the helicopter's main gearbox.

Yet Sikorsky and Helicopter Support Inc. knew the studs "were susceptible to fatigue cracking and failure" after the same helicopter model made an emergency landing in July 2008 in Australia, the claim says.

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It accuses Sikorsky of not taking immediate action to fix the problem, and says the minister of transport failed to monitor the choppers or warn operators that they no longer complied with Canadian certification requirements.

Sikorsky issued an alert service bulletin six weeks before the Cougar crash telling S-92 operators to replace the titanium studs with steel parts. But the Jan. 28, 2009 bulletin didn't make compliance essential for one year or 1,250 flight hours.

Two weeks after Cougar Flight 491 went down, the Transportation Safety Board said the titanium studs broke in flight, resulting in the loss of oil pressure.

Shawn Coyle, a test pilot who has worked for Bell Helicopters, helicopter maker Agusta Westland and in the certification section of Transport Canada, said it is not unusual for an operator to sue a supplier like Sikorsky after a crash.

Cougar "has lost the aircraft, and suffered an economic loss," he said. "They think they have a fairly good case to show the manufacturer is responsible, so they're seeking recourse."

It is, however, unusual that the lawsuit goes after the federal government through its transport minister for allegedly failing to meet its own certification standards, Mr. Coyle said.

No one from Transport Canada or Transport Minister Chuck Strahl's office was available for comment.

Mr. Coyle said there's little chance the lawsuit will go to trial.

"Historically, only about one in 10 lawsuits in the United States go to trial. It's expensive to go to trial for the litigants and the attempt is to resolve as soon as possible."

Sikorsky settled out of court early this year with Mr. Decker and the families of those who died on Cougar Flight 491. Details were not publicly released.

Sikorsky has filed an application asking that the Cougar lawsuit be stayed pending rulings on other applications proceeding through the U.S. District Court of Connecticut.

It will also argue during a Supreme Court hearing Sept. 10 in St. John's that the lawsuit should be dealt with in the U.S.

The safety board is still investigating the crash. A report on the first phase of a helicopter safety inquiry is due by Sept. 30. Sikorsky has since redesigned the S-92's oil lubricating system.

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