The federal government is blaming the state of Maryland for a helicopter crash that killed four people in 2008, claiming the mistakes of a state-employed pilot, not federal air-traffic controllers, directly caused the accident.
The U.S. claim, filed in federal court Friday, comes in response to a $4 million lawsuit filed by Maryland officials alleging that Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controllers failed to properly direct Stephen H. Bunker, the pilot of the medevac helicopter carrying two automobile accident victims and two emergency medical technicians that crashed on its way to Andrews Air Force Base in rainy weather Sept. 28, 2008.
The helicopter, known as Trooper 2, crashed in Walker Mill Regional Park, killing everyone aboard except Jordan Wells, one of the automobile accident victims, who suffered severe injuries.
In its latest filing, the federal government says Bunker failed to properly assess the risk of landing the helicopter and executing an approach to the base's runway, and that he attempted to descend too quickly.
"The injuries … were solely and proximately caused by the conduct of the pilot in command, an employee of the State of Maryland," the United States claims. The government also faults Maryland State Police for a "lack of adherence to effective risk management procedures" and a "lack of training, supervision, flight following, and oversight."
Charles S. Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, declined Monday to comment on the government's claims. The United States says it is entitled to compensation from Maryland and the helicopter's insurer if the federal government is forced by the courts to pay damages to the victims' families.
Robert D. Schulte, a Baltimore aviation lawyer representing the family of Mickey Lippy, a paramedic who died in the crash, said he believes the evidence shows Bunker did all he could under difficult conditions to safely land the helicopter.
"It is a time-honored tradition in aviation crashes to blame the pilot, for the simple reason that they're usually not around to defend themselves," Schulte said "You had a bunch of controllers asleep at the switch, and I think we'll be able to prove that."
Maryland officials claim that at times during the night, FAA controllers were "slow to respond, made the pilot repeat his requests, and offered no assistance." In addition, the state claims, the controllers "had agreed that each would work only half the shift while the other would take an extended break."
A report by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded a year after the accident that the pilot's decision to make a rapid descent was the chief cause of the accident, although the safety board also faulted air-traffic controllers.
Cara J. Luther, who represents the family of Ashley J. Younger, the teenager killed in the helicopter crash, said that a lawsuit has been filed against the federal government for its role in the crash and her clients intend to file suit against the state of Maryland before the September 2011 deadline for the state police's role in the crash. Michael L. Rowan, the attorney for a relative of Tonya Mallard, an EMT who was also killed, declined to comment on whether his client would be suing the state.
Schulte said his client's family cannot sue Maryland because Lippy was a state employee, and the damages to which they are entitled are limited by worker's compensation statutes.