John Coletti: Oregon company must pay $14.6 million after 2 workers dangling from helicopter rope fall to their deaths
A jury has decided that an Oregon helicopter company must pay $14.6 million to the families of two workers who plummeted about 100 feet to their deaths when a rope suspending them from a helicopter in Louisiana broke.
Jurors found Winco Powerline Services of Aurora responsible for the multimillion-dollar verdict after Travis Chiokai, 26, and Nicholas Gamalski, 27, died at the scene in southwestern Louisiana on Nov. 7, 2017.
Winco Powerline Services has been in business since 1992 and transports workers and equipment for the powerline construction industry.
Chiokai and Gamalski were hanging from the helicopter by a nylon rope. The pilot rubbed the rope against an abrasive, braided metal line that serves as a lightning rod of sorts and that caused the rope holding the two men to sever, said Portland attorney John Coletti, who represented Gamalski’s estate.
Coletti said the catastrophe could have been avoided if the pilot had used a rope covered in kevlar to protect it from being so susceptible to abrasion.
Winco Powerline Services didn’t dispute it was at fault. It asked a jury only to decide how much in damages it was responsible for.
“This was a corporation that admitted they killed two people, that admitted they were negligent, and told the jury that they were prepared to pay what the jury determined,” said Portland attorney Nick Kahl, who represented Chiokai’s estate.
The trial was held in Marion County Circuit Court because the helicopter company is located in Marion County.
Jurors on Monday awarded about $5.6 million to Chiokai’s daughter, who was born about a month after his death and is being raised by her mother, who was Chiokai’s girlfriend. The money is for living expenses for the girl until she’s 18, plus noneconomic damages for the loss of the father she never met.
Jurors awarded an additional $2 million to Chiokai’s estate for the pain and suffering from the time the rope snapped to the time he died.
Jurors also ruled the company must pay Gamalski’s parents, William and Karen Gamalski of California, $4 million for the loss of their son. Jurors also awarded Nicholas Gamalski’s estate $3 million for his pain and suffering from the time the rope snapped to the time he died.
Both men died at the scene.
The men lived in California but were in Louisiana for the powerline project through their employer Irby Construction.
Because the two died in Louisiana, that state’s civil laws applied to the case. That meant -- unlike under Oregon law that applies a $500,000 limit on noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases -- there was no limit on the jury’s awards in this case.
“It’s frankly frustrating that human life is worth more in Louisiana than in Oregon, and it’s great to see that the jury took the time to understand exactly what these families went through and what these two men’s lives were truly worth,” Coletti said.
If Oregon’s noneconomic damages cap applied in this case, Coletti said he would expect the jury’s $14.6 million award to be reduced to $2.86 million -- that’s $500,000 for each estate’s noneconomic damages, plus $1.86 in economic damages for Chiokai’s daughter.
Karyn Jorgensen, who was among the Seattle attorneys representing the helicopter company, declined to comment on whether the company will appeal.
“Winco expresses its appreciation to the jury for serving on this challenging case,” Jorgensen said in an email. “Winco cannot comment further in anticipation of post-trial proceedings.”
By Aimee Green | The Oregonian/OregonLive