Family of Ohio flight nurse killed in 2019 air ambulance crash files wrongful death suit

The family of Flight Nurse Rachel Cunningham is suing the operator of Survival Flight, alleging safety violations in the helicopter crash that killed three


Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The family of one of three people killed on a medical transport mission two years ago when a Survival Flight helicopter crashed in Vinton County has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Along with the pilot and a fellow flight nurse, Rachel Cunningham was one of three people aboard the Survival Flight helicopter on Jan. 29, 2019 that was traveling from Mount Carmel Grove City hospital to pick up a patient at Holzer Meigs emergency care facility in Pomeroy along the Ohio River in southeastern Ohio. But they never made it to their destination.

The family of Flight Nurse Rachel Cunningham, one of three people killed in an Ohio air ambulance crash in January 2019, has filed a wrongful death suit against the operators of Survival Flight, alleging safety violations.
The family of Flight Nurse Rachel Cunningham, one of three people killed in an Ohio air ambulance crash in January 2019, has filed a wrongful death suit against the operators of Survival Flight, alleging safety violations. (Photo/Ohio State Highway Patrol)

Cunningham, 33, a flight nurse from the Far West Side; pilot Jennifer L. Topper, 34, of Sunbury; and flight nurse Bradley J. Haynes, 48, of London, all perished when their helicopter crashed in poor weather conditions in pre-dawn hours in the wooded hills of Zaleski State Forest, part of Lake Hope State Park in Vinton County.

Cunningham's mother, Suzan Pettis, the administrator of Cunningham's estate, filed a civil complaint this week accusing Arkansas-based Viking Aviation LLC and its Survival Flight helicopter operation at Mount Carmel's Grove City and Westerville hospitals of numerous safety violations in connection with the fatal flight.

Among other things, the lawsuit noted that two other medical helicopter services — Columbus-based MedFlight and West Virginia's HealthNet Aeromedical Services — had turned down the flight, with representatives indicating that conditions at the time did not meet their minimum weather standards.

At the time of the crash in Vinton County, the National Weather Service office in Charleston, W.Va had said light snow showers were falling, temperatures were below freezing and winds were blowing from the west at 15 mph and gusting to 21 mph.

Viking control center operators discussed the Survival Flight mission with a night shift pilot but not Topper, who was not able to complete a pre-flight analysis checklist as required by federal regulations and was not informed of the snow showers, icy conditions and turbulence expected along the planned route, the suit alleges.

“You essentially sent this pilot out in an incredibly dangerous weather situation and you didn’t give her any information,” said Dan Mordarski, one of the attorneys representing Cunningham's family with the lawsuit. “It’s horrible to think about.”

The suit contends Viking operates a lucrative for-profit air ambulance business in several states and had rapidly expanded into central Ohio using pilots with little or no experience flying in Ohio and medical crews with minimal ground training and little or no experience in an air ambulance.

Rachel Cunningham, a flight nurse who was not employed by Survival Flight, was among people who had previously expressed concern about Viking's safety procedures a month before her death, the suit states.

Survival Flight also was operating illegally at the time of the crash as it was not registered to do business in Ohio with the secretary of state, the suit alleges.

The complaint also names as defendants Holzer Health System, which operates the facility that called for the patient transport, and Mount Carmel Health System, which has a contractual operation with Survival Flight to provide the base and medical staffing for the flights.

The lawsuit cited the practice of "helicopter shopping" — when a medical facility calls multiple places about flights without disclosing that other agencies had declined for weather reasons — as a factor in the disaster. The suit accuses Holzer of not telling Viking that two other medical helicopter services had rejected the flight, and Viking of not asking.

Mordarski said the Cunningham family is not commenting publicly on the case. But Mordarski said Wedneday that the family is seeking a revision to safety protocols.

According to lawsuit, plaintiffs are seeking compensation, damages and attorney fees in an amount surpassing $25,000.

In a written statement, Survival Flight spokesman Ryan Stubenrauch acknowledged the tragedy without addressing the pending litigation.

“Two years ago, a terrible tragedy took the lives of three brave people who’d dedicated themselves to saving the lives of others and Survival Flight will always mourn their loss," Stubenrauch said in the statement. "Our company has always made safety the top priority and we continue to learn, improve, and adapt in order to better serve our communities and save lives.”

A November 2019 report from the National Transportation Safety Board had found that employees at Viking Aviation had long been concerned about pilots and crews being pressured by management to fly in questionable weather prior to the deadly crash. The report further confirmed the existence of a flyer sent to hospitals that advertised that Survival Flight would take flights other companies declined.

In a November 2019 statement to The Dispatch, Stubenrauch said a quarter of all the company's thousands of flights over Ohio and five other states are turned down because of adverse weather conditions. He also denied there was evidence that the Jan. 29, 2019 crash was due to the weather, instead referring to an analysis that "strongly suggests" an object, possibly a bird, "caused a sudden and dramatic change 10 seconds before the crash."

May 2020 report from the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was caused by an "inadequate management of safety" by Survival Flight. NTSB investigators found that the pilot took off without first conducting a thorough pre-flight weather evaluation and was unable to maintain altitude while making a left 180-degree turn.

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(c)2021 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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