Nurse severely injured in Frisco Flight for Life crash reaches $100 million settlement

Jack Queen
Summit Daily
Dave Repsher, a flight nurse who was seriously injured in a 2015 helicopter crash in Frisco, has reached a $100 million settlement with the helicopter’s manufacturer and the company that operated it.

FRISCO — A flight nurse who was seriously injured in a 2015 helicopter crash in Frisco has been awarded $100 million in a settlement with the helicopter’s manufacturer and the company that operated it. Repsher’s attorneys said they hope the extraordinary sum will compel the industry to improve helicopter crashworthiness.

Dave Repsher suffered burns on 90 percent of his body after the Flight For Life helicopter he was riding in crashed shortly after takeoff at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center on July 3, 2015. The pilot, 64-year-old Patrick Mahany, was killed. He was a decorated U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam and had flown for Flight For Life for 27 years. Another nurse, Matt Bowe, was also injured.

“It’s an amount the Repshers were very deserving of,” said Denver attorney Murray Ogborn, reached by phone Thursday afternoon. “It allows them to cover all future medical bills and allows them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Dave’s future care will be very expensive — and extensive.”

Air Methods will pay $45 million, and Airbus will pay $55 million, one of Respher’s attorneys said. The settlement will be paid in full in a single installment, likely within the next several weeks.

Repsher and his wife, Amanda, brought a civil suit in Summit County Court against manufacturer Airbus Helicopters and the aircraft’s operator, Air Methods Corporation, shortly after the crash. They could not immediately be reached for comment.

The suit alleged at least nine counts of negligence, including failure to retrofit the Airbus AS350 helicopter with a crash-resistant fuel system, which ruptured when the craft hit the ground and ignited in a conflagration that killed Mahany and burned Repsher and Bowe.

“This is the highest pre-trial settlement in U.S. history, and it is well-deserved,” said Gary C. Robb, a Kansas City, Missouri aviation attorney who also represented the Repshers. “In my 37 years doing aviation work, this is the most severely injured client I’ve ever had. It is the Repshers’ greatest hope that perhaps other manufacturers will start putting crash-resistant fuel systems in their helicopters so that no one ever has to go through the horrible burn injuries that Dave suffered.”

Linda Stojek-Bliss, research director for VerdictSearch, said the amount was the highest pre-trial settlement for a personal injury case in her company’s database.

In a statement, Air Methods said it was retrofitting its fleet of helicopters with crash-resistant fuel systems approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We continue to be inspired by the strength and courage of Dave Repsher and his family, and hope this resolution provides closure for everyone that was impacted by this accident,” the statement said. “At Air Methods, safety is our highest priority, and we continue to raise the bar to ensure the safe return of our crews and patients to their loved ones. To that end, we have taken a number of proactive steps to improve crashworthiness protections in all of our aircraft, and have supported the implementation of stronger regulations, new legislation and industry-wide safety standards.”

Airbus did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

System failure

Repsher’s survival was nothing short of extraordinary.

The helicopter erupted into flames mere seconds after crashing to the ground, giving him no time to escape. Repsher suffered full-thickness burns on 90 percent of his body, some of which were bone deep. He was not expected to live more than 24 hours.

Instead, he began his long, continuing road to recovery with 13 months in a University of Colorado hospital, including 11 months in a burn intensive care unit. He went into renal failure due to the burns, battled septic shock for 10 months, overcame uncontrolled bleeding in his chest and endured hundreds of procedures and surgeries, according to a statement from his attorneys.

In August 2017, Repsher was finally able to stop dialysis treatments after Matt Martinez donated a kidney to him. The two had only known each other in passing as volunteers at Copper Mountain Resort, but Martinez said he was deeply inspired by Repsher’s story.

“It’s just so hard to put into words what this means,” Repsher told the Denver Post in September. “They say donation is the gift of life, and it really is. It’s given us a second chance to hopefully do some of the things that we could do before, get back out there and enjoy life. ‘Thank you’ just doesn’t suffice.”

A National Transportation and Safety Board inquiry identified several factors in the crash that were named in the suit. Ultimately, however, the agency said the accident would have been survivable if the fuel system had been crashworthy.

Modern helicopters are now required to have crash-resistant fuel systems, which provide precious time for survivors to escape before fuel leaks out and catches on fire.

But Robb said that helicopter manufacturers routinely take advantage of a loophole in the regulations, allowing them to grandfather-in helicopters originally designed before 1994 — even if they were built yesterday. That was the case with the Flight for Life craft, he said.

“It would be like if Ford Pinto, a model designed before 1978, could still have a defective rear fuel tank — that’s how ludicrous that loophole is,” Robb said. “It’s not that expensive in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t add that much more weight…. We’re perplexed why more manufacturers still don’t utilize this very simple technology.”

The NTSB has found that as of Nov. 2014, only about 15 percent of domestic helicopters built after 1994 actually have crash-resistant fuel systems. The FAA has said it is looking at updating the rules at the recommendation of the NTSB.

Robb is not convinced it’s a good-faith effort.

“We see incremental progress around the edges, but nothing that would close that loophole,” he said. “They just say that would be unfair to the industry. Well what about unfair to David Repsher?”