Attorneys for the families of three U.S. Navy seaman killed in a 2014 helicopter crash, as well as one of the crash survivors, are working to keep alive their wrongful death case against a military contractor based in Denton.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas traveled to Denton this week to hear oral arguments in Van Dorn et al v. M1 Support Services. Attorneys for the survivors said Denton District Judge Doug Robison erred in saying that the state had no jurisdiction to hear the case. Attorneys for M1 Support Services said Robison was right to follow a recent Texas Supreme Court decision and dismiss the case last year.
The survivors filed the lawsuit in January 2016, two years after a Sikorsky Sea Dragon helicopter caught fire and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during a training mission off the Virginia coast. The crash killed Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, Lt. Sean Snyder and Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins. Petty Officer 2nd Class Dylan Boone was permanently injured. A fifth seaman injured in the crash has not been publicly identified.
Attorney Kevin Mahoney argued that Robison’s dismissal should be reversed on several grounds, pointing out how his clients’ case differed from the case that lead to the higher court’s decision.
In that case, K-9 v. Freeman, a bomb-sniffing dog trained in Texas escaped its kennel and bit a civilian employee working on the Camp Mike Spann Army post in north Afghanistan. The employee was permanently disabled. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Texas trainer wasn’t liable, primarily because state courts couldn’t second-guess military decisions in a war zone.
Mahoney likened the dismissal of his client’s case to asking the court to adopt a limitless rule.
“No future government contracts would be adjudicated in Texas,” Mahoney said. “And that [a limitless rule] was what the Texas Supreme Court warned against in this decision.”
Attorney S. Vance Wittie argued that Robison was correct, saying that the U.S. Navy provided technical directives, approved staff and supplied tools for the helicopter’s maintenance. In addition, after the crash, the Navy changed many of its maintenance practices, he said.
“There’s ample evidence to determine that the Navy had control,” Wittie said, a key test of whether the Texas Supreme Court’s decision applies.
More than two dozen people observed the half-hour of oral arguments in a Denton County court on Tuesday afternoon, including Robison’s wife, Denton County Probate Judge Bonnie Robison. The Second Court of Appeals is based in Fort Worth and sent Justices Mike Wallace, Dana Womack and Lee Gabriel to Denton to hear the case.
After arguments concluded, Gabriel noted to the attorneys and observers that the judges had already had a brief conversation about the case, which she called “interesting, unique and novel to us.”
“We will give it a lot of study,” she added.
It will likely be several months or more before the panel renders its decision on the appeal.