Iraq helicopter crash settlement worth $450,000

An OH-58 D Kiowa Warrior returns to Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan, after completing an aerial-surveillance mission on March 12, 2008.

A federal magistrate judge is refusing to keep secret the terms of a settlement in a lawsuit over the death of a Knoxville military captain.

“There is more danger in the darkness of secrecy than the light of truth,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley said Monday at a hearing in which he rejected a move to keep under wraps a deal to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit involving the late Capt. Marcus Ray Alford, 28.

Alford’s mother, Karen Ray, and the husband of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Billie Jean Grinder, 25, of Gallatin, Tenn., filed suit against government contractor Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., and companies, including Rolls-Royce North America Inc., Goodrich Pump and Engine Control Systems, Unison Industries and Honeywell International, that supplied parts for Bell’s Kiowa OH-58D Warrior helicopter.

Alford and Grinder were piloting the Bell chopper when it crashed south of Mosul, Iraq, in February 2010 as the pair tried to land. They were not under fire and no enemy forces were nearby, the military has said.

The families blame the crash on the failure of a system known as the Full Authority Digital Electronic Control, or FADEC. Bell had argued it was protected from lawsuits involving deaths in times of war and both sides agreed Bell likely would have prevailed because of that.

In the settlement, Bell and the other firms are agreeing to pay out $450,000 to settle what was an $80 million lawsuit. Of that, Karen Ray’s attorneys, Ursula Bailey, Mark Brown and George Underwood, will receive $150,000 in legal fees and nearly $10,000 the attorneys paid out of their own pockets for litigation costs and fees for experts and guardian ad litems for Alford’s two minor children.

The children, who are identified only by initials in the settlement petition, will receive the rest. The $290,200 remaining after attorneys fees and costs will be divided in half and placed in an escrow account for each child set up through Knox County Chancery Court. The children, who are now in the custody of Karen Ray, will be entitled to the money when they reach adulthood.

Bell Helicopter and the other firms named in the lawsuit are not admitting blame in the settlement.

The status of the litigation involving Grinder is not addressed in the settlement.

Karen Ray’s attorneys asked Shirley to seal the terms of the settlement to “protect the children” from money-seekers. Bailey told Shirley the children’s grandmother had already been besieged by callers curious about the settlement when the News Sentinel first reported — sans details on the amounts to be paid — a deal had been struck to end the lawsuit.

“We would like to protect (the children) as well as (the grandmother),” Bailey said.

Attorneys Benjamin Jones, Harry Ogden and Lynn Tarpley, who represented the defendants, also backed a sealing of the settlement.

But Shirley rejected the arguments.

“They’ll still say, ‘oh, she settled. I wonder how much they got,’” Shirley said. “Rumors will fly. I think it would be worse (to keep the terms secret.)”

Karen Ray grew so upset over the judge’s refusal, the court took a brief recess to allow her to compose herself.

“I apologize for getting emotional,” she said after the break. “I want to protect (her grandchildren).”

Shirley responded, “I’m trying to do the same thing.” He added that people likely would assume the children received millions, given the initial demand of $80 million in damages, if the deal was kept secret.

Ultimately, Shirley said, courts are funded by taxpayers and the public has a right to know what happens there.

“This is the people’s court,” he said. “In America, we don’t do things in secret.”

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