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Judge nixes defense motion to limit discovery in lawsuit over VSP helicopter deaths

The widows of two Virginia State Police officers who died on Aug. 12, 2017, will be allowed access to contracts between the department and a helicopter manufacturer.

In a recent order, Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Claude Worrell overruled a motion from Dallas Airmotive Inc. that sought to limit the scope of the plaintiffs’ discovery requests.

DAI is one of several defendants in companion wrongful death lawsuits that 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 lawsuits filed by the women 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. Footage from their helicopter recently was used as evidence in the murder and hate crimes 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.

Last month, DAI appeared at the first hearing in the case to present its discovery argument, claiming that in the last 10 years, various U.S. Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the scope of what discovery a plaintiff is entitled to.

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.

DAI has also filed a motion to dismiss, similarly arguing that Virginia courts do not have jurisdiction of the company in this particular case.

According to an order from Worrell, defense counsel will be allowed to present further argument to the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss until Dec. 23, with no further replies allowed after Jan. 9. A motions hearing is scheduled for Jan. 16 in Albemarle County Circuit Court.


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