Investigations of a 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine and injured four in Northern California have resulted in criminal charges for two Oregon men and also raise both Oregon wrongful death and, potentially, industrial accident issues. The details of the tragedy were outlined last week by The Oregonian.
All of the crash victims were involved in fighting wildfires in California at the time of the incident. All but one were Oregonians, as are the two men who, the paper reports, now face fraud charges in relation to the crash. The criminal complaint “accuses the two men of falsifying the weight and takeoff power of the helicopter that crashed and other helicopters that were part of a ‘call-when-needed’ contract worth up to $20 million” The Oregonian reports. Both men have been suspended by the Grant’s Pass company that employed them, owned the helicopter and had contracted it to the US Forest Service for firefighting duty in California.
The criminal charges carry potential 20-year sentences, but they also raise civil liability issues that ought to be considered. If the allegations against the defendants are true their actions could also warrant the filing of wrongful death charges by loved ones of those killed in the crash. Ordinarily, the statute of limitations for Oregon wrongful death claims is three years. The law does, however, allow for exceptions if the negligent act was not discovered within that time frame, a situation that may apply in this case since criminal charges have only just been filed. Whether such a suit would be directed at the men currently facing criminal charges, at their employer (the helicopter’s owner) or both is an issue requiring further legal analysis.
In addition, because the defendants were employed by a company that employer may also be subject to Oregon employment liability law if it can be shown that the employee’s actions or negligence should reasonably have been prevented or noticed by their employer. This is because Oregon’s definition of industrial accidents extends to accidents caused by negligent failure to repair or maintain equipment.
In short, this tragic case illustrates the complex interplay of criminal and civil liability issues in our legal system. Helping fellow Oregonians sort through this often confusing system is one of the most important services offered by Portland wrongful death attorneys. The law can seem daunting to people unfamiliar with its intricacies, but it is also a tool to ensure that justice is done.