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First hearing in lawsuit about state police deaths focuses on discovery

An Albemarle County judge will soon decide exactly how much information a defendant should provide the widows of two Virginia State Police officers who died in a helicopter crash on Aug. 12, 2017.

The companion wrongful death lawsuits were filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court in June on behalf of Amanda Bates and Karen Cullen, whose husbands died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally. Named defendants include a swath of manufacturers involved with producing and maintaining the helicopter.

Unlike the women’s lawsuits filed in Richmond City Circuit Court in July, the Albemarle suits only name corporate defendants, not state entities.

The lawsuits accuse the defendants of negligence and fraud, an allegation to which some of the defendants have filed responses since August.

Berke M.M. Bates and H. Jay Cullen were tasked with monitoring the white supremacist Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017. Footage from their helicopter recently was used as evidence in the murder trials of neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr.

In the late afternoon that day, on the way to monitor then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s motorcade, their helicopter suddenly crashed, killing both men.

According to the lawsuits, the helicopter — a Bell 407 manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron — was a “maintenance nightmare,” with a reputation for frequent repairs. These repairs would ultimately lead to the crash, the complaints argue.

Wednesday, during the first hearing for the case in Albemarle County Circuit Court, attorneys representing one of the defendants — Dallas Airmotive Inc. — argued the plaintiffs are not entitled to much of their discovery requests, which include marketing materials directed at Virginia, contracts with the state police and all accident investigations related to the commonwealth.

In the last 10 years, various U.S. Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the scope of what discovery a plaintiff is entitled to, the DAI attorneys argued.

DAI, a Texas-based company, repaired the engine of the helicopter in 2016 and all the work was done either in Texas or Missouri, the defense counsel said. Data on the specific engine in question was provided to the plaintiffs, but anything else is not appropriate, they argued.

Cynthia Devers, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that because the relationship between DAI and the state police was directly at issue, the discovery requests were appropriate. It is important to clarify the extent of the business with the state police, she said.

Judge Claude Worrell said he expects to issue a ruling on whether to grant DAI a protective order preventing the requested discovery by the end of next week.

DAI has also filed a motion to dismiss, similarly arguing that Virginia courts do not have jurisdiction of the company in this particular case. Counsel is expected to argue that motion on Dec. 10 in Albemarle Circuit Court.


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