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Idaho Supreme Court Revives Pilot Wrongful Death Claim Against State

he Idaho Supreme Court revived a wrongful death case against the Idaho Department of Fish and Game brought by the father of a pilot who died in a helicopter crash with two coworkers. One of the employee's clipboards fell out of the helicopter, striking its tail rotor.

The district court granted the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s motion for summary judgement to dismiss the case.  The decision was overturned on appeal by the state supreme court, which found there to be genuine issues of material fact regarding the liability of the department for the crash.

Helicopter contracted for research

The department contracted a helicopter to fly two of its employees, Larry Barrett and Danielle Schiff, over the Selway River in Idaho to collect data on salmon spawning.  Prior to the flight the pilot, Perry J. Krinitt, Jr., briefed Barrett and Schiff, informing them they must at all times maintain control of any items they had with them.

During the flight, pilot Krinitt sat at the center seat where the flight instrument pedestal was located. Barrett sat on the left and made observations of the salmon spawning beds, while Schiff sat on the right and recorded Barrett’s observations on paper that she held with a metal clipboard.

Krinitt intended to land and refuel in Kamiah, Idaho.  While descending, a man installing a sprinkler system in Kamiah noticed the helicopter flying toward him.  After hearing a loud bang, he saw something come off the tail rotor.

The helicopter then rotated back and forth while descending. The man saw the right door open and stated that it appeared someone was in the doorway contemplating jumping.  The helicopter continued to rotate until it fell straight down and crashed. Krinitt, Schiff and Barrett died in the crash.

Wrongful death claim dismissed, revived

Krinitt’s father, Perry Krinitt Sr. of Laguna Niguel, California, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the department, contending that the negligence of the department or its employees caused the accident when Schiff’s clipboard fell out of the helicopter.

The district court dismissed Krinitt Sr.’s claim, finding that the evidence did not show who had possession of the clipboard when it left the helicopter cabin, and that it hitting the tail rotor was an unforeseeable accident.

The state supreme court overturned the district court’s decision:

  • It found that the trial court erred in granting the department summary judgement and erred in failing to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.  The court found that the district court, however, did not err in ruling that Krinitt Sr. failed to establish a claim of negligence per se.
  • The supreme court found that the lower court erred because it did not draw all reasonable inferences from the record in favor of the moving party. The court found that it was undisputed that Schiff was in possession of the clipboard and retained control of it until she lost it on the flight.
  • The supreme court also found that based on the record and testimony, there was evidence that the clipboard could not have left the helicopter unless Schiff opened the door and failed to maintain control of the clipboard

District court mischaracterization

The court further stated that the district court mischaracterized the helicopter owner’s deposition statements. The lower court said the owner testified that he did not foresee that a clipboard falling out of the door could damage the helicopter.

However, the supreme court said he stated that he did not fathom someone would fail to keep control of the clipboard. The clipboard was found in the wreckage near the fractured tail rotor blades, with “creasing, tearing and red paint transfer marks…consistent with the clipboard being struck by the tail rotor.”

The supreme court found that the district court further erred when it had no basis to conclude that it was unknown how the clipboard got from the cockpit to the rear rotor. The court wrote that on “the contrary it is ‘obvious and undisputed” how the clipboard fell.

Even in oral arguments, the department acknowledged that no one disputed that the metal clipboard struck one of the blades, which led to a succession of events that caused the tail rotor disassembly to disengage.

Circumstantial evidence was sufficient

The supreme court also ruled that the lower court failed to recognize that “circumstantial evidence is competent to establish negligence and proximate cause, and the circumstantial evidence in this case indicated that Schiff failed to maintain control of the clipboard.

The district court erred further when it held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (meaning "it speaks for itself") was inapplicable to this case.  The supreme court, finding the district court’s reasoning “unavailing.” found that the “evidence was sufficient to show that the clipboard was under the exclusive control and management of the [department’s] employee.  Further, a jury could conclude that the accident would not have happened but for Schiff’s negligence.

The supreme court vacated the judgement and reversed the order granting the department’s summary judgement from the district court.  The court awarded the plaintiff costs on appeal.

The case is Krinitt v. Idaho Department of Fish and Game, case number 41417-2014 in the Supreme Court of The State of Idaho.

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