Lawsuit filed in north Florida helicopter crash


A Clay County sheriff's deputy walks by smoldering brush on his way to wreckage from a helicopter crash in an area west of Green Cove Springs in this Dec. 26, 2011 file photo. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Kelly Jordan)

Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 11:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 11:53 a.m.

JACKSONVILLE — A helicopter that crashed during a flight to pick up a heart for transplant, killing all three people on board, should never have taken off because weather conditions and visibility were too poor, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of one victim.

The Dec. 26 crash in northeast Florida killed Dr. Luis Bonilla, a heart surgeon, and David Hines, an organ procurement technician, who were flying from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to pick up a heart at a Gainesville hospital. Also killed was the pilot, E. Hoke Smith, of St. Augustine-based SK Logistics.



Hines' 27-year-old daughter Christine Hines filed a lawsuit Friday in Clay County court claiming that Smith and his company were negligent in deciding to take off.

"The bottom line here is that the weather was so bad with low ceiling and fog, that the flight should never have been made," Christine Hines' attorney, Robert Spohrer, said Tuesday.

Messages left Tuesday for Smith's son, Derrick Smith, an executive at SK Logistics, were not immediately returned. The company operates as SK Jets from the St. Augustine airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. A preliminary NTSB report notes that no flight plan was filed, but Smith was flying in weather recommended for instrument flight.

The helicopter struck several trees as it crashed to the ground in a remote wooded area about 12 miles northeast of the Palatka Municipal Airport in overcast, somewhat misty conditions, investigators said.

"The pilot got a weather briefing yet took off knowing the ceiling was as low as 300 feet. He was flying over a rural and dark area of Clay County attempting to maneuver by reference to visual cues outside the aircraft," Spohrer said. "The clouds, fog and mist created a dangerous situation and he became spatially disoriented causing him to strike a 50 foot pine tree."

The lawsuit seeks more than $15,000 in damages from Smith's estate and SK Logistics for the mental pain and suffering of by Christine Hines and two siblings, 25-year-old Crystal Griner and 24-year-old Jonathan Wayne Hines.

Smith, 68, was a decorated veteran of combat missions in Vietnam. His son has said Smith routinely flew medical transport flights, particularly during the holidays when he gave his employees time off.

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