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Parents of Navy SEAL killed in 2014 training accident sue gear maker

A U.S. airman retrieves his parachute after a drop at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Dec. 9, 2015. A lawsuit has been filed against the maker of a steerable parachute used by U.S. Special Operations Command.

EDWARD REAGAN/U.S. ARMY

By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: June 25, 2016

The parents of a Coronado Navy SEAL killed in a June 2014 parachute training accident are suing the manufacturer for design defect, negligence and wrongful death, in a case that involves parachutes in wide use by U.S. special-operations units.

A Navy investigation found that Chief Petty Officer Bradley Cavner’s death was caused by a gust of wind prematurely deploying his reserve chute while he stood in an aircraft doorway, readying to jump.

Cavner, a 31-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who graduated from Coronado High, was swept out of the C-130 troop plane at 1,300 feet.

He fatally hit his head on the plane’s door edge.

The impact was so strong, it caused the aircraft to buck.

The Navy investigation said he died instantly -- though his body, held aloft by both his primary and reserve chutes, continued down to a field near the El Centro landing zone.

Cavner’s parents, Steve and Beth, have an ongoing lawsuit in San Diego federal court against Airborne Systems of North America CA, the international design and manufacturing company that made Cavner’s chute. Steve Cavner is a retired Coronado police sergeant.

The gear is question is the MC-6 personnel parachute system, a steerable chute used throughout U.S. Special Operations Command for dropping into hot zones.

In 2010, a year after the MC-6 was introduced to the Army, at least 27,000 soldiers had been issued this piece of gear.

“We believe there was a defect in the way this was designed and that allowed it to flap open,” said David Casey, a San Diego attorney representing the Cavner family.

“At the end of the day, they’ll need to pull these parachutes and get a better design because they put our servicemen at risk,” Casey said.

Neither lawyers nor a spokeswoman for Airborne responded to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

The company, which traces its history to 1919, calls itself the “world’s most trusted resource for parachute design and manufacturing.” It has offices in Orange County and New Jersey, with satellites in England and France.

Casey said it’s his understanding that the Navy still uses the MC-6 parachutes but has changed procedure for airplane doors.

A spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Group 1 in Coronado couldn’t immediately say Friday afternoon what the current protocol is.

In a September 2014 memo, the top SEAL, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, wrote that the Navy and Army were conducting engineering testing of the reserve system. He directed that his SEALs should not use the chutes until the testing finished.

“The Naval Special Warfare community has always put the safety of its sailors above all else. While Chief Cavner's death was a tragedy, it brought about important changes to our training programs that will hopefully prevent these types of incidents in the future,” said Lt. Zach Keating on Friday in a statement from Coronado.

Four other U.S troops have experienced the same thing with this parachute due to gusts of wind-- but none of those were fatal, the Navy investigation found.

Those incidents, two in 2012 and two in 2013, were unknown to Naval Special Warfare before Cavner’s death, according to the Navy report, which was released Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

However, instructors in Cavner’s course showed their students a YouTube video in which an Army parachutist’s reserve deployed unexpectedly. The instructors warned about exposure to wind.

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