Magana Cathcart & McCarthy

Discovery Channel Settles On-set Helicopter Accident Lawsuit


The Discovery Channel has settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a military veteran who perished in a helicopter crash during the filming of a reality TV show with the working title of Lone Operator. The helicopter crash killed three people and was one of the worst on-set accidents in Los Angeles in decades.

The lawsuit was brought by the family of Michael Donatelli, a 45-year-old former Special Forces Ranger. The suit is one of five lawsuits brought in connection with the February 2013 crash that occurred in Acton, a remote part of northern Los Angeles County. Terms of the settlement between Donatelli’s family and Discovery Channel were kept confidential, but generally in a wrongful death action, the family of a person who was killed may obtain compensation from liable parties for the lost earnings of the family member, the costs of funeral and burial expenses, and the emotional distress of losing a loved one and the loss of companionship, guidance and moral support.

The crash also claimed the lives of the pilot David Gibbs and cameraman Darren Ryndstrom. Donatelli was working as a consultant and narrator on the Discovery show, which had a military theme. A report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicated that the pilot had difficulty seeing due to equipment being used to illuminate Donatelli, and that the deadly flight took place on a moonless night with little ground illumination. The pilot had complained earlier in the night of not being able to see, but the flights continued. Gibbs did not have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly that night, and his license to fly had previously been suspended twice. The NTSB report indicated that he had previously flown a helicopter into a power line in 2003 during the filming of a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! episode in Kingman, Arizona.

This tragic crash highlights the consequences that follow from not taking proper aviation safety precautions, which can unfortunately happen far too often in television and film productions where crews work extremely long hours and producers are prone to cut corners with regard to safety. The crash brings to mind a deadly helicopter crash in Santa Clarita during the filming of the 1982 movie The Twilight Zone that killed the actor Vic Morrow and two child actors. Authorities investigating that scene found numerous safety violations, and the film director and others were charged with manslaughter, although they were eventually acquitted. More recently, a production worker was killed in Georgia during the filming of Midnight Rider after being struck by a metal object when a freight train passed over train tracks that the producers were filming on without proper authorization. The director of that film pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times in March 2015, government data indicates that deaths on film and TV productions have doubled in the last five years, with negligent oversight by producers being the likely cause for the increase.

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