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March 23, 2010 - Copter Crash Suit Blames Southern California Edison

A grounding wire negligently strung high above the Sierra foothills caused a January helicopter crash that killed three Fish and Game employees from Fresno and the pilot, the family of one victim contends in a lawsuit that blames Southern California Edison.

Typically, grounding wires -- also known as static lines -- are within several feet of the power lines, said a Fresno attorney representing the family of Clu Cotter, 48, an associate biologist killed in the Jan. 5 crash. In this case, however, the wire was more than 100 feet above the power lines, he said.

And even though industry standards require warning devices to be placed on static lines, Southern California Edison did not do so, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit is the first salvo in what promises to be an extended legal battle over the crash. Families for the other two Fish and Game employees also have hired attorneys who plan to sue.

Steve Conroy, an Edison spokesman, said Monday the utility company has not received the lawsuit and could not comment.

The lawsuit was filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court; the utility's headquarters are in Los Angeles. It also names the helicopter's owner, Landells Aviation, of Desert Hot Springs, as a defendant.

Owner Elaine Landells said Monday that she didn't expect to be sued "because we lost someone, too."

Dennis Donovan, 70, of Palm Springs was an experienced pilot, Landells said.

"This is so sad and upsetting that it gets my stomach churning every time I hear about the crash," she said. "We're not going to get over it for a long time."

The crash took the lives of Donovan, Cotter, biologist supervisor Kevin O'Connor, 40, and Tom Stolberg, 31, a scientific aide.

The lawyers for O'Connor and Stolberg's families said Monday they will sue Southern California Edison and Landells Aviation.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which issued a preliminary report after the helicopter crash, one static line was severed in the crash. The helicopter's main rotor blades had abrasion marks consistent in appearance with a severed static line, the board's report said.

The power lines were not marked, Southern California Edison said the day after the crash.

The three California Department of Fish and Game employees were conducting a deer survey in a mountainous area when the helicopter crashed near the confluence of the San Joaquin River and Willow Creek, just downstream of Redinger Lake.

The Cotters' attorney said Southern California Edison was aware that aircraft fly in the vicinity of power lines to do animal surveys, as well as for search-and-rescue operations, and for fire suppression.

The lines span 3,000 feet from tower to tower over Willow Creek, and the power lines sagged significantly, distancing them from the static line, the lawsuit said.

The family's attorney said the design, construction and maintenance of the static lines "created a dangerous condition" and was "for all practical purposes, invisible without proper warning."

According to federal investigators, two witnesses saw the helicopter fly straight toward the power lines and rear back before hitting the ground.

The witnesses also told investigators they saw the helicopter emerge from a valley to the north and fly south along Willow Creek directly toward them. The helicopter did not appear to be malfunctioning before the crash, the two witnesses said.

There were three parallel power transmission lines and, above them, two static ground lines, the report said.

One static line was severed and became entangled in the other lines.

The weather at the time of the crash was clear, with a few scattered clouds and light winds from the north, the report said.

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