A Texas appeals court ruled this week that District Judge Doug Robison did not err when, in 2018, he dismissed a wrongful death case against a Denton company connected to a deadly U.S. Navy helicopter crash in Virginia in 2014.
Van Dorn et al v. M1 Support Services had been winding its way through the 393rd District Court for several years before it was doomed by a Texas Supreme Court decision in an unrelated case. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas ruled in favor of M1 on Thursday. Justice Dana Womack authored the 33-page opinion released along with the court’s decision.
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.
Navy investigators said a leaking fuel line, once anchored by a zip tie, triggered the deadly fire. Attorneys for the families argued that M1 was liable as a government contractor in charge of the helicopter’s maintenance.
In 2018, attorneys for M1 argued that a recent Texas Supreme Court decision changed everything, and asked Robison to find that the state no longer had jurisdiction and dismiss the case.
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.
The appeals court agreed that Robison was correct to cite the high court’s opinion in Freeman and dismiss the case against M1, agreeing that he did not apply the Freeman decision too broadly in doing so — a key argument by attorneys for the families to keep the case alive.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court traveled to Denton last fall to hear oral arguments.
After arguments concluded, Justice Lee Gabriel called the case “interesting, unique and novel.”
In its opinion, the appeals court also sided with Robison’s ruling that a jury could allocate fault to the U.S. Navy under federal maritime law.
Kevin Mahoney, attorney for the families, declined to comment Friday, saying they were still reviewing the appellate court’s decision.