Helicopter Pilot awarded $5.6 Million in Damages

Bruce Towers (Mr Towers) was employed by Hevilift Limited (Hevilift) in 2006 as a helicopter pilot.  Hevilift provided air transport for workers in a mining project in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.

On 20 April 2006, Mr Towers was ferrying mine workers to a camp site when he received a radio report of fog in the area. He responded by saying that he would “take a look”. According to Papua New Guinea Civil Aviation Rules – he was to remain clear of cloud. Within minutes, the helicopter that he was flying became caught in cloud almost instantaneously and crashed, killing three of its six passengers and seriously injuring Mr Towers rendering him an incomplete quadriplegic.

Mr Towers then commenced proceedings against Hevilift in the Supreme Court of Queensland (SCQ) for damages in negligence and breach of his employment contract.

Trial

After an unsuccessful application to move the case out of the jurisdiction, the matter proceeded to trial where a critical factual issue was whether Mr Towers deliberately flew into the fog or whether fog suddenly and unexpectedly enveloped the helicopter. The court rejected the notion that Mr Towers recklessly chose to fly into cloud and instead accepted that the helicopter became enveloped by cloud which formed around it[1], as well as refuting that Mr Towers was responsible for continuing to fly into potential danger.

His Honour Justice Henry determined the crash would not have occurred and Mr Towers would not have been injured if he had been warned of the cloud and its associated risk or had otherwise been directed to divert the helicopter to an alternative and safe landing location[2]. As a result, Henry J concluded that Hevilift failed to warn Mr. Towers of the dangers, and that this failure directly resulted in breach of Hevilift’s duty of care to Mr Towers. Thus, their actions were a proximate cause of his injuries[3].

The SCQ awarded judgment in favour of Mr Towers against Hevilift.

On Appeal

Hevilift challenged the original ruling of the trial judge on appeal.

The court found that it was insufficient that Mr Towers was not properly advised that the helipad at Camp 57 was closed[4] and that there was no substantial evidence to support that Hevilift investigated the risks posed to pilots by local weather conditions or that there was any strategy in place to address the adverse weather conditions[5]. Had Mr Towers been appropriately warned about the cloud at Camp 57, he would not have proceeded towards Camp 57 and would have altered course towards a different camp site, thus avoiding the crash.

As a result, the court dismissed the appeal.

Quantum of Damages

On 15 April 2020, the SCQ made a final assessment for the quantum of damages.

While the parties agreed on certain aspects of the quantum assessment, the court specifically addressed the following contested issues: 1) life expectancy; 2) economic loss; and 3) household maintenance costs[6].

Henry J assessed arguments about how to best determine life expectancy by weighting the Australian Bureau of Statistics life expectancy tables, put forward my Mr Towers’ Counsel, against the evidence for Hevilift given by Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Dr Peter McCombe. It was ultimately determined that life expectancy should be set at 15 years[7].

Economic losses were awarded for loss of past income and loss of past superannuation, which notably took into account a lengthy discussion of Mr Towers’ forecasted career trajectory prior to the accident and his likely remuneration until retirement.

Hevilift’s Counsel argued that Mr Towers’ household maintenance costs lacked evidence and did not take into account that he lived with other family members who benefitted from household maintenance just as much as Mr Towers[8]. Henry J found those arguments unpersuasive[9] given the nature of Mr Towers’ injuries and thereby awarded household maintenance costs for cleaning as well as mowing and gardening expenses.

Upon a full analysis of all applicable heads of damage and the relevant interest calculations, Hevilift was ordered to pay Mr Towers the sum of approximately $5.6 million dollars.

Observations

This case emphasises the possible threat to aviation safety where a pilot is not adequately warned about local weather phenomena that can adversely affect flying conditions regardless of previous training and experience.

For more information about compensation relating to in-flight injuries, please do not hesitate to contact IALPG Principal, Joseph Wheeler on jwheeler@ialpg.com.

 

Jake Sunney (Solicitor) and Garnik Martirosov (Law Clerk)

[1] Towers v Hevilift Ltd & Anor [2016] QSC 267 at [212].

[2] Ibid at [208].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hevilift Limited v Towers [2018] QCA 89 at [4].

[5] Ibid at [10].

[6] Towers v Hevilift Ltd (No 2) [2020] QSC 77 at [4].

[7] Ibid at [51].

[8] Ibid at [111].

[9] Ibid at [112].

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