U.S.

Man sues government after crashing snowmobile into military helicopter

The man is suing the U.S. government for $9.5 million after his snowmobile hit a Black Hawk helicopter parked on a trail, badly inuring him.

A damaged Black Hawk helicopter rests on the snow
A damaged Black Hawk helicopter that was hit by a snowmobile.
U.S. Army photograph provided by attorney Douglas Desjardins via AP
SMS

Jeff Smith was whizzing along on a snowmobile one evening a few years back when something dark appeared in front of him. He hit his brakes but couldn't avoid clipping the rear tail of a Black Hawk helicopter parked on the trail.

The March 2019 crash almost cost Smith his life and is now the subject of a federal lawsuit by the Massachusetts lawyer. He is demanding $9.5 million in damages from the government, money he says is needed to cover his medical expenses and lost wages, as well as hold the military responsible for the crash.

"The last five years, there's been surgery, recovery, surgery, recovery," said Smith, who lost the use of his left arm, suffered respiratory issues since the crash, and hasn't been able to work full time. "Honestly, right now, it feels like I'm in a worse place than when I first had the surgeries in 2019."

A U.S. District Court judge in Springfield is expected to rule on the lawsuit later this year.

Smith's lawyers in the yearslong court case argue that the crew of the Black Hawk helicopter that flew down from New York's Fort Drum for night training was negligent for parking a camouflaged 64-foot aircraft on a rarely used airfield also used by snowmobilers. Smith also sued the owner of Albert Farms airfield in Worthington, Massachusetts — accusing them of both giving permission to snowmobilers to use the trail and the Blackhawk crew to land in the same area. He settled with the farm owner for an undisclosed sum.

Smith argues that the crew didn't do enough to protect him, including failing to warn snowmobilers of the helicopter's presence on the trail, leaving the 14,500-pound aircraft unattended for a brief time and failing to illuminate it. The helicopter landed on an air strip approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and the crew members testified that trainings are often conducted in similar locations. But Smith, who said he had snowmobiled on the trail more than 100 times, said the last time an aircraft used it was decades ago when he was a child — and never a military aircraft.

"Our argument from the beginning has been that it's incompatible to have a helicopter land on an active snowmobile trail," Smith's attorney, Douglas Desjardins, said, adding that the lawsuit was filed after the government failed to respond to their damages claim.

"The Army internal investigation showed pretty clearly that the crew knew that they were landing right before or right after on an active snowmobile trail," he said. "What bad could happen there? You know, helicopter on a snowmobile trail where folks go fast."

The government has attempted to dismiss the case several times, arguing that it can't be sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act since this involves a policy decision. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office had no comment.

They also argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and that the crew wasn't told that they were landing on a snowmobile trail. They also pushed back on claims they could have prevented the accident, saying there was nothing in their policies that required illuminating the helicopter. They also attempted to cast blame on Smith for the accident, claiming he was driving his sled more than 65 mph at the time the crash and that he had taken both prescription drugs and drank two beers before his ride.

In its investigation, the Army concluded the crew wasn't aware they were landing on a snowmobile trail in the crash. It also questioned whether glow stick-like devices known as chem lights used to light up the craft would have made a difference.

"I found no negligence by the crew and believe they complied with all applicable regulations and laws," according to the report. "Furthermore, given the particular circumstances of this incident, I am not convinced that using such chem lights or similar devices would have prevented the collision."

The night of the accident, Smith said he was over at his mom's helping fix a computer. He had a beer with dinner and then another with his dad, before setting off to meet his brother, Richard Smith, on the trail. Smith drove in the dark alongside farm fields and forests before going over a ridge. His headlights reflected off "something," he said, but Smith only knew it was a helicopter after the crash.

The testimony from the crew and the people who had come out to see the helicopter painted a chaotic scene after the crash, in which Smith was thrown from his snowmobile and his sled went flying through the air.

"I found him face down in the snow," Benjamin Foster, one of the crew members, told the court. "We rolled him on his back and I might remember yelling or telling one of my crew chiefs to grab some trauma shears and space blankets from the aircraft. ... I remember him gasping for breath."

"As soon as I heard that somebody on a snowmobile hit the helicopter, I knew it was my brother," Richard Smith said. "My heart hit my stomach. I just knew it was him. I went down there and my father told me he was alive. I didn't sleep that night. I spent that night on my knees praying."

Smith was airlifted to a trauma center, with a dozen broken ribs, a punctured lung and severe internal bleeding. "It was a mess," Jeff Smith said.

The 48-year-old returned home after a month in the hospital. But he continues to struggle with simple tasks, including putting on socks or pulling up his pants. Worse, he no longer golfs or snowmobiles —- including rides with his brother, friends and his 20-year-old son, Anthony. He gets by on federal disability assistance and lives with his parents.

"We went away that winter before the accident a couple times and he had gotten to that age where we were really bonding," he said. "I feel like it got robbed from me."

For Richard Smith, it's meant the loss of his riding partner. "It has destroyed me," he said.

Jeff Smith is now pinning hopes on winning the lawsuit, which he said would help pay for a procedure at Massachusetts General Hospital that attaches an electronically controlled brace that would improve movement in his left arm.

"It would change my life," he said. "I would certainly be able to function and it would easier to do the daily activities of daily life like brushing my teeth, taking out the trash and opening door with one hand."