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Snowmobiler who ran into Army helicopter sues for $9.5 million

Jeffrey Smith is seeking $9.5 million in damages.
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Black Hawk
FILE: A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lands on a snow-covered field at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. (Maj. Travis Mueller/U.S. Army)

A Massachusetts man who suffered life-altering injuries after running into an Army Black Hawk helicopter that had landed on a snowmobile trail is suing the federal government for $9.5 million to cover medical bills, lost wages, and other expenses.

Attorneys for Jeffrey Smith, who his lawyers say hasn’t been able to resume his legal career since the March 2019 crash, argue that the Army aircrew was negligent for landing the helicopter on an airfield that was also used by snowmobilers.

On March 12, 2019, an Army Black Hawk assigned to Fort Drum, New York, landed at Albert Farms airfield in Worthington, Massachusetts, according to the court filing, a rural airstrip also used as a snowmobile trail by local riders. The helicopter set down before sunset but darkness soon arrived, as did several snowmobilers, including Smith.

In the darkness, Smith struck the Black Hawk — whose paint is designed to be hard to see in the dark — at a speed that an expert later estimated was between 26 and 39 mph.

“I’ve always thought that what the Army did was just crazy,” Smith attorney Douglas Desjardins told Task & Purpose on Wednesday. “Once they landed on the snow-covered runway and they saw the snowmobile tracks, and then the snowmobilers came up to them, they should have left. Something bad was going to happen. It’s even worse staying well after sunset. It became more and more dangerous as the sun was setting.”

Although Smith claims he has suffered $13.6 million in damages since the accident, he is seeking $9.5 million in compensation, Desjardins said.

“I think we’re capped at $9.5 [million], but we wanted to be candid with the court and say our damages actually far exceed the $9.5 [million],” Desjardins said.

An Army investigation into the incident found no negligence by the helicopter’s crew, and it cast doubt on whether the incident could have been avoided if the crew had used chemlights to illuminate the aircraft, the Associated Press reported.

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But Desjardins said he read the Army investigation’s conclusion slightly differently: It found the helicopter crew didn’t violate any written rules.

“Even if the crew was unaware of the snowmobile trail when they first landed at Albert Farms, they observed enough indications that there would be snowmobilers passing to alert them to the fact that an unmarked and unlit Blackhawk helicopter parked where snowmobilers actively ride would be a danger to the general public,” according to proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law filed by Smith’s attorneys.

Smith could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

A Snowmobiling Hub

Albert Farms is a popular riding spot for the Worthington Snowmobile Club. The land’s owner had previously permitted the club to use the runway there as a snowmobile trail, the court papers say.

Smith’s attorneys argue that the Black Hack crew saw passing snowmobilers after they landed, and they learned that a snowmobile trail went through Albert Farms, according to court papers.

“The collective testimony proves that the crew could have avoided the risk they presented to the public in many ways, including: simply leaving the site when they determined the risk; moving the helicopter off the snowmobile trail; coordinating with the local government agencies; or placing chem lights around the aircraft to mark the Blackhawk’s presence,” Smith’s attorneys argue.

Shortly before Smith’s accident, another man nearly ran into the helicopter with his snowmobile, court papers say. The aircraft’s crew did not notice the incident, and the man went on to a local restaurant, where he warned other snowmobilers that “there was obstructions in the middle of the trail with no warning.”

Smith, who drank two beers and took prescribed medications Adderall and Suboxone that night, began driving his snowmobile on the trail around 7:10 p.m. – roughly 16 minutes after sunset, according to the court papers. One person has testified that Smith was not intoxicated when he left.

The helicopter’s coating of low-reflective paint made it difficult to see in the dark, Smith’s attorneys argue.

“On the evening of March 12, 2019, the paint of the helicopter essentially blended in with the background of the forest,” according to the court papers.

By the time Smith saw the aircraft, it was too late. He ran into the helicopter while traveling between 26 and 39 miles per hour and was thrown from the snowmobile.

Smith’s attorneys argue that the helicopter’s crew could have used the chemlights that were aboard the aircraft at the time to illuminate the Black Hawk for snowmobilers before the crash.

“If the crew had marked the helicopter, Jeffrey Smith would have been able to see the Blackhawk with enough time to come to a halt or turn to navigate around the Blackhawk without incident,” Smith’s attorneys argue in court papers.

In fact, the crew set up between 40 and 50 chemlights around the helicopter after the accident to prevent another incident, according to court papers.

When asked about its investigation into the incident, the Army directed Task & Purpose to file a Freedom of Information Act request on the matter.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, which is representing the government in this lawsuit, declined to comment because the case is pending trial.

Smith was severely injured by the crash: His clavicle bone and every rib on the left side of his body were broken; his left lung was punctured; the scapula in his back was broken; his diaphragm was damaged; he herniated several disks in his spine, dislocated his right thumb; suffered from a dropped left foot; and his nerves were “pulled clean out of the spinal cord itself,” court papers say.

He continues to suffer from a collapsed left lung; the nerve running his diaphragm is paralyzed; and he has no sensation in his left arm and hand, according to court papers.

“As a result of his injuries, Mr. Smith has difficulty with almost every aspect of his daily life,” the court papers say. “His mother and father aid him with most of the things he cannot do, with the burden of taking care of him falling mainly on the shoulders of his mother. Mr. Smith, once an active and involved father, now must rely on his family members, including his children, for almost all his needs. This has strained his relationship with his parents and his children.”

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