Friday, September 2, 2011

When a Patient Dies, It's a Different Story

Read the update on this story by clicking here.

There's a frightening sameness to the accidents that continue to plague the helicopter ambulance industry, but the crash that killed 58-year old Terry Tacoronte in in Missouri last Friday is notably different. Tacoronte, of McFall, Missouri was a patient, and though there have been 19 helicopter ambulance accidents in since 2009, this is the first time a patient has been killed since October 2008 when the toddler, Kirstin Reann Blockinger died in a crash in suburban Chicago.

A mother of three and grandmother of eight, Tacoronte was killed on August 26th along with the pilot, flight paramedic and nurse, so you may be wondering why am I am focusing so much attention on her.  The reason is this; When pilots or medical personnel go down in an air ambulance crash, there is  little legal recourse. Workmens' compensation precludes them or their families from suing their employer. Unless they can prove the accident was a due to a defect in the aircraft, there is no way for them to sue for compensation.

Say what you will about lawyers, the fact that the people most likely to be injured or killed in  helicopter ambulance accidents never get their day in court has to be contributing to the industry's dismal safety record.

But here comes Mr. Tacoronte armed with aviation attorney Gary Robb and a civil lawsuit that claims it was the practice of Air Methods to fly with reduced fuel as a weight and money saving tactic. The consequence in this case was to cause the helicopter to run out of fuel and crash, according to the suit.

Did it happen that way? Who can say? It really is too early, but fuel exhaustion is not difficult to detect at a crash scene. Lack of a fire or no fuel smell on the ground are good indicators. 

Tacoronte tells reporters as his wife was boarded onto a helicopter to be transferred the seventy miles from from St. Joseph to Liberty Hospital, he kissed her good bye - fully intending to meet her there after traveling by car.  When he arrived a doctor told him his wife of 8 years was dead.

Yes, his story is tragic. As tragic as the stories from the families of paramedic Chris Frakes, flight nurse Randy Bever and pilot James Freudenberg.  And as tragic as what the families of dozens of pilots and medical workers who died in the accidents prior have experienced. 

Unlike them, this widower is free to press his case and use the cudgel of the judicial system to put pressure on the helicopter EMS operators. 

Perhaps things will change because of this accident. Perhaps it will result in a closer examination of the risks versus the benefits of helicopter transport of patients. Perhaps this one minor difference will make all the difference in the world.
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