A life of service, a day of justice

The Examiner

On May 27, 1993, a LifeFlight helicopter left Kansas City for Bethany, Missouri to bring a passenger back to Saint Luke’s Hospital. James Barnett was the pilot. Phil Hedrick was the paramedic, and Sheila Roth was the flight nurse.

Bob Buckley

I had the privilege of representing Sheila and her husband, Bob, in a case filed 10 years later. I have never met a more courageous and inspirational person than Sheila Roth.

Sheila graduated from Van Horn High School in 1973. All she ever wanted to do was to be a nurse. Nurses are the heroes of our time because of what they do daily. Sheila began her heroic efforts in 1976 in the emergency room at Research Medical Center, where she worked as a nurse until 1992. She loved the excitement and rewards of emergency medicine and dedicated her life to helping people in their times of greatest need. Her husband, Bob, was a paramedic, which led him to the emergency room at Research one day when he met Sheila.

On that day in May 1993, the helicopter arrived in Bethany to pick up Sherry Letz, who was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident and needed lifesaving care of doctors and nurses in Kansas City. On the return flight, they were near Cameron when Sheila heard a loud pop. Sheila was out of her seat attending to the patient, and Phil knew that a crash was about to occur. He undoubtedly saved Sheila’s life by throwing her back into her seat seconds before the crash. His sacrificial efforts probably led to more serious injuries to himself. The crash occurred in a field. It took 90 minutes for emergency crews to get to the scene of the crash.

The pilot and the passenger both died in the crash. Sheila suffered an injury to her kidney and severely injured her spine. The second helicopter taking Phil to Kansas City stopped at Liberty Hospital because Phil had suffered cardiac arrest and needed emergent care. Unfortunately, he suffered significant brain injury; he also suffered a stroke in the emergency room, resulting in severe left-sided deficit. Sheila’s injuries caused her to lose a kidney and to be paralyzed from the waist down.

Four lawsuits were filed after the investigation determined that there was a significant defect in the engine of the helicopter, which was produced by a French manufacturer. The crash in 1993 was not the first failure of this engine as it had crashed several times in different parts of the world. The families of James Barnett and Sherry Letz filed wrongful death cases, and Phil Hedrick and Sheila filed personal injury cases. The Letz case was the first case tried and resulted in a verdict of $70 million. A $350 million verdict was rendered in the Barnett case. If you question why punitive damages should be rendered against manufacturers of products that show a conscious disregard for the safety of others, read the appellate decision in Letz v. Turbomeca. The evidence is compelling.

The defendants became aware of the defect in the engine after a crash in the Congo in 1985. Before the crash in 1993, there had been at least 13 crashes caused by the same defect. The manufacturer could have recalled all of the helicopters and corrected the defect, but that would have cost $49 million, according to sworn testimony. Instead, the decision was made to wait until there was a routine engine overhaul. An avoidable crash devastated the families of the four people on board that helicopter.

Sheila settled her case during the Letz trial. The defendants had represented in sworn interrogatory answers that there was only $50 million in insurance coverage and because her case was the fourth one to be tried, she decided to settle her case as it appeared there may not be enough insurance.

I had the privilege of representing Sheila and her husband in a second case in which we alleged that the French helicopter manufacturer and its insurers had committed fraud. At the time of Sheila’s settlement, if a defendant was not truthful in revealing insurance coverage, the only remedy was to refund the settlement money and start the case over again. The proudest moment of my long career was the day the appellate court changed that unfair law. The decision was rendered in 2003, ten years after the crash.

Most would agree that 2020 has been an awful year. The death and destruction of life resulting from the virus have changed all of us. Yet, amid this misery, two families had to contend with the loss of loved ones untouched by the virus. Phil Hedrick and Sheila Roth both lived 27 years after their lives were devastated by an unnecessary crash. Phil died on May 8 and Sheila on Nov. 10 of this year.

Sheila’s nursing career ended in that field near Cameron, but she continued to teach paramedics and EMTs until she had to quit for health reasons in 2004. I am forever grateful that my friend, John Chick, introduced me to his friends. John and I cried together when he called me two weeks ago to inform me of her passing. 

She is worth every tear. She lived her life for the past 27 years in intractable pain and dealt with a host of medical issues caused by her paralysis. Yet, she persevered through all the misery. I will never understand why bad things happen to good people. Undoubtedly Sheila’s strong Catholic faith delivered her through the past 27 years.

There have been many notable people pass through the halls of Van Horn High School, but no one could surpass the impact Sheila Roth had on those who knew her, including me.

Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com.