The families of four people — including three teens — who died in a February plane crash off the North Carolina coast are suing the companies that owned the plane and employed the pilot, who also died. The suit claims the pilot failed to properly fly the single-engine plane in weather conditions with limited visibility, making the firms liable.
All eight people aboard the Pilatus PC-12/47 died when it descended into the Atlantic Ocean off the Outer Banks. Four teenagers and two adults on the plane were returning from a hunting trip. The two others were the pilot and his adult son, who was a student pilot, the suit said.
The wrongful death suit was filed Tuesday in Carteret County against EDP Management Group LLC and Green Assets, both of Wilmington, and Dillon’s Aviation of Greenville.
The plane took off Feb. 13 in the early afternoon from Hyde County Airport, which is on the mainland near the Pamlico Sound. The plane's destination was southwest across the sound to Beaufort, which is along the southern edge of the Outer Banks in Carteret County.
The suit alleges that pilot Ernest "Teen" Rawls failed to maintain control over the plane and improperly flew into weather conditions with limited visibility that required the use of instrumentation.
The suit also asserts that Rawls failed to maintain adequate communication with air traffic control and failed to avoid restricted military airspace, “leading to an erratic and irregular flight path.”
The suit alleges that Rawls improperly relied on a co-pilot with “inadequate training and experience” to fly around the restricted airspace and in those weather conditions. Rawls’ son, Jeffrey Rawls, reportedly, had 20 hours of flight experience, the suit stated.
The suit also claims that Rawls failed to conduct a proper weight and balance evaluation before taking off.
The website for Green Assets listed Hunter Parks, one of the people who died in the crash, as its founder and chairman. His family is not among those who sued. A company spokesman released a statement that said it could not comment on the suit.
“There is not a day that goes by that we do not feel the sadness of this tragedy," the statement said. "Our hearts remain with all families and friends who have been impacted by this incident. And because this is active litigation and that the facts of the incident are still unknown, we are unable to comment on the specifics of the complaint at this time.”
Email and phone messages seeking comment from Dillon’s Aviation and EDP Management Group were not immediately returned.
In late February, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary accident report that the pilot had made no distress calls and no declarations of an emergency.
The airplane had reached 4,700 feet (1,430 meters) and was climbing quickly, the NTSB's report stated. There was no response to calls from an air traffic controller, and radar contact was lost.
A final report from the NTSB has not been issued.
Andrew Robb, a Kansas City-based aviation attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the four families, said by phone that the plane's lack of distress calls and climbing altitude were hallmarks of a pilot becoming spatially disoriented.
“If there was a problem with the mechanics or the electronics or something on that airplane that caused this 3,000-foot ascent, you would think that the pilot would have made some kind of communication,” Robb said.
The lawsuit was filed by the families of passengers Noah Styron, 15; Michael Shepherd, 15; Jacob Taylor, 16; and Stephanie Fulcher, 42.
Others who were onboard included Parks, 45, and Jonathan Kole McInnis, 15.
Rawls and his son lived in Greenville, authorities said in February. Fulcher, Parks and the four teens lived in Carteret County. The mostly rural county is home to older fishing villages as well as touristy areas that include Emerald Isle and Cape Lookout National Seashore.
The four teenagers went to East Carteret High School, which has about 600 students.
Charlie Snow, a close friend of the pilot, told The Associated Press in February that Rawls had previously flown for Snow’s company, Outer Banks Airlines, and was highly trained and extremely capable.
“If anybody could get out of something, if it was possible to get out of it, he could have done it,” Snow said.