Family of British tourist killed in 2018 Grand Canyon helicopter crash wins $100M settlement
Jan 9, 2024, 6:00 PM
(Teddy Fujimoto via AP, File)
RENO, Nev. (AP) — A Nevada judge has approved a $100 million cash settlement to the parents of a British tourist who was among five killed — including his newlywed wife — when a helicopter crashed and burst into flames in the Grand Canyon in 2018.
Under the settlement approved in Las Vegas on Friday, the family of Jonathan Udall, 31, will receive $24.6 million from the operator of the helicopter, Papillon Airways Inc., and $75.4 million from its French manufacturer, Airbus Helicopters SAS.
The family’s lawyer, Gary C. Robb of Kansas City, Missouri, said they insisted the settlement terms be made public to raise awareness about aircraft fuel tanks they say are prone to rupturing.
“The parents say the fuel tank was basically a fire bomb,” Robb told The Associated Press late Monday.
Lawyers for the defendants, Eric Lyttle for Airbus Helicopters Inc., and William Katt for Papillon Airways, confirmed the terms, according to a transcript of a hearing Friday in Clark County District Court.
They did not immediately return calls late Monday or respond to emails Tuesday from The Associated Press.
Jonathan and Ellie Milward Udall, 29, boarded the helicopter from Boulder City, Nevada, with the three others who were killed. They were touring the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai reservation, outside the boundaries of the national park, when the crash happened.
The family’s lawsuit alleged the helicopter was unsafe because it lacked a crash-resistant fuel system that’s now required for aircraft built after the Federal Aviation Administration issued new regulations in 2020.
Robb said some helicopter manufacturers have voluntarily replaced the fuel tanks grandfathered in under the FAA regulations but many have not.
“The Udall family wants to shine a spotlight on this issue so the industry will take note and voluntarily seek to correct this public health issue. They don’t want anyone else to go through what their son went through in an otherwise survivable accident — not a broken bone. He would have walked away.”
The Airbus EC130 B4 crashed just before sunset in February 2018 in a section of the Grand Canyon where air tours aren’t as highly regulated as in the national park. Three of the British tourists on board were pronounced dead at the scene: veterinary receptionist Becky Dobson, 27; her boyfriend and car salesman Stuart Hill, 30; and Hill’s brother, 32-year-old lawyer Jason Hill.
Jonathan Udall, of Southampton, and Ellie Udall later died of complications from burn injuries. His parents claimed in the lawsuit that their son could have survived if not for the post-fire crash.
All of them were on the trip to celebrate Stuart Hill’s birthday.
Robb said helicopter manufacturers have been aware the old-fashioned, hard-plastic fuel tanks are prone to rupturing during hard landings.
“The fuel pours onto the passengers, then ignites. It’s just horrible,” he said. “The three people on the right side of the aircraft never escaped. They were completely burned in their seats.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said turbulent winds were a probable cause of the loss of control and tail-rotor effectiveness before the hard landing outside the national park boundaries.
Its final accident report in January 2021 said the investigation found no evidence of mechanical problems with the helicopter but noted it lacked a crash-resistant fuel system. The helicopters in Papillon’s fleet weren’t required to have them, but the company has since retrofitted the aircraft with fuel tanks that expand and seal upon impact instead of rupturing.
The pilot Scott Booth fractured his lower left leg, and passenger Jennifer Barham had a spinal fracture. They also suffered severe burns but survived. Since then, both of Booth’s legs have been amputated, he said.
Papillon Helicopters spokesman Matt Barkett said in an email to AP on Tuesday that safety is the company’s top priority. He noted the NTSB concluded there were no mechanical problems “and our pilot was not found to be at fault due to the extreme weather conditions.”
“Crash resistant fuel cells were installed in Papillon’s entire fleet once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved their use in the months following this accident. We continue to extend our sympathies to the families of the victims and now close this difficult chapter in our history,” he wrote.