Mediation ‘pointless’: Widow returns to court over Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
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Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson.
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson. Credit: Supplied

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority says the cause of a fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Netflix star Chris Wilson remains “unclear” despite the national transport investigator last year declaring that the helicopter probably ran out of fuel.

Wilson’s widow Danielle is suing CASA, Outback Wrangler Matt Wright and his company Helibrook over her husband’s death during a crocodile egg-collecting mission in a remote part of West Arnhem in February 2022.

The destroyed Robinson R44 Raven II, registered VH-IDW, was owned and operated by Wright’s company Helibrook.

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The egg collecting operation was being conducted under a CASA authorisation – which allowed Helibrook to sling a person beneath its piston engine-powered helicopters for the purpose of crocodile egg collecting – at the time it crashed.

In November, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released its 113-page final report into the accident, finding that the helicopter “likely” collided with terrain on the morning of February 28, 2022, due to fuel exhaustion.

But during a directions hearing in the Federal Court on Friday, CASA’s lawyer Thomas Miller publicly cast doubt on the ATSB’s main finding.

Earlier this month, Justice Elizabeth Raper had ordered the parties to attend mediation.

But the parties were back before the Federal Court on Friday after some respondents expressed that mediation would be “pointless” and a “waste of the court’s time”.

Matthew Kalyk, appearing for Ms Wilson, said some respondents “see no utility in the mediation”.

CASA’s lawyer Thomas Miller told the court that Barrister Darryn Kelly’s instructing solicitor, acting for Helibrook and Wright, had written to him since the last directions hearing.

“The correspondence … said that, in their view, the mediation was pointless and a waste of the court’s time,” Mr Miller said.

“That indication was given in response to correspondence from our office, which identified that we would attend the mediation and attempt to resolve as many of the disputes as possible, but we gave an indication that we were not likely to be able to make monetary offers of settlement.

“And part of that, your Honour, relates to the quite complex matters in dispute in this case.

“There is a novel duty of care alleged against CASA as regulator, that it should have taken different actions as regulator, both in relation to the legislative instruments that are passed, in relation to its surveillance activities.

“There is a helicopter which has crashed, and there are unclear circumstances as to why it crashed.”

Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle Credit: Supplied

Wilson — who starred alongside Wright in reality television shows including Outback Wrangler and Wild Croc Territory — was slinging beneath the helicopter when it crashed, soon after taking off from a clearing, on the King River.

Pilot Sebastian Robinson, who was flying, was critically injured and is now paraplegic.

Mr Robinson, 31, is not a party to these civil proceedings.

Mr Miller said the existence of the duty of care was “very much an issue”.

“The scope and content of that duty, as it is alleged to exist, is very much in issue,” he said.

“And they are all matters about which there would need to be, I would have thought, some expert evidence going to key aspects of the case including liability and causation.”

Mr Kelly said he was “shocked” by CASA’s position.

“I must say I think the letter came from Mr Miller or his firm, saying monetary offers, was the first time I recall that had been raised,” he said.

“Agreeing to attend to mediation carries with it some implications and it came as a shock to me and to those who instruct me when a letter arrived saying ‘well, we’ll turn up but we’re not going to be offering anything’.

“We still see some merit in the parties getting together … … to try to shorten up some issues, to try to resolve some issues if possible, and if nothing else, to advance the position of the case significantly.

“So we remain content to attend the mediation and our position really hasn’t changed.”

Ms Wilson claims CASA, Helibrook and Wright breached their duty of care in allowing her husband to be slung beneath a piston engine-powered chopper to collect crocodile eggs the day he was killed.

Ms Wilson — now a single mother of two young boys — is claiming damages, interest, costs, interest on costs and “such other order as the court sees fit”.

“As a result of this conduct, the applicant suffered nervous shock or psychiatric harm and loss of maintenance and financial support of Mr Wilson during the course of his lifetime,” the claim states.

None of the respondents have filed a defence.

Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle Credit: Supplied

Justice Raper insisted that mediation at an early stage of the proceedings would be beneficial despite it being “imperfect in terms of you don’t have all the evidence”.

She said that while she was “concerned” about CASA’s position, she appreciated the separate challenges the respondent faced as a Commonwealth party who was accountable to the Australian public, as opposed to a private commercial party, but believed mediation should still take place as planned.

She added that nothing was stopping Ms Wilson from reaching a settlement with Wright and Helibrook before resolving her claims against CASA.

Justice Raper referred the matter for court-ordered mediation to be completed by June 20.

The ATSB today declined to comment on what transpired in court.

“The ATSB is not a party to the legal proceedings which are entirely separate to the ATSB’s investigation,” a spokesperson said.

“Additionally, ATSB investigation reports are inadmissible in civil and criminal proceedings.

“The ATSB has no comment on issues arising between the parties.”

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