A UK student who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a light plane crash that killed another passenger has launched a multi-million-dollar negligence lawsuit against Australia’s civil aviation watchdog.
Hannah O’Dowd was 21 and studying abroad in Melbourne when the four-seater Cessna 172M charter flight she boarded in Agnes Water came down on a beach on Middle Island, south of Gladstone, on January 10, 2017.
The crash claimed the life of a 29-year-old British backpacker, while three others, including the pilot and Ms O’Dowd, suffered serious injuries.
Almost three years after being brought out of an induced coma, Ms O’Dowd and her parents have launched a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in the Supreme Court of Queensland, accusing it of negligence.
Among the allegations are that the watchdog failed “to put in place reasonable steps to prevent or regulate the flight being conducted in a dangerous, unconventional, unreasonable and unsafe manner”.
An investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), released last year, found the pilot was inspecting the beach for landing when the aircraft’s engine suddenly, and totally, lost power at approximately 60ft (18 metres).
“Under significant time pressure, the pilot elected to conduct a significant left turn to the beach at a very low height. Although he believed it to be the safest option under the circumstances, it was inconsistent with standard training and guidance to land within 30 (degrees) either side of straight ahead following an engine failure at a low height,” the report said.
“During the continued left turn toward the beach, the aircraft did not have sufficient performance to avoid a collision with terrain, and it impacted terrain with little or no control and a significant descent rate.”
Though the ATSB was unable to pinpoint the reason behind the power loss, it did find the operator’s “procedures and practices for conducting airborne inspections” didn’t effectively manage such risk when flying at a low height.
The O’Dowd family alleges the crash happened as a result of the “unconventional and unsafe manner the aircraft was operated”.
“(CASA) owed a duty to members of the public (including Ms O’Dowd) to take all reasonable care to ensure that Wyndham Aviation conducted its operations in compliance with the Act,” the statement of claim said.
They also said CASA had received “numerous complaints” to do with “near-aerobatic manoeuvres” on Wyndham Aviation flights and did site inspections in 2011 and 2015.
But CASA failed to conduct a detailed examination into these manoeuvres “in circumstances where it knew, or ought to have known, of such conduct,” the statement of claim alleged.
In its final report, the ATSB said Wyndham Aviation had previously advertised that their flights involved some manoeuvres to give passengers “thrills or excitement” — with consent forms provided — but both the chief pilot and the pilot from the accident believed none were aerobatic and were instead within the limits.
The investigating body reviewed the video footage from the accident flight and found one of the turns could have briefly been classified as an aerobatic manoeuvre.
“Ultimately, the performance of near-aerobatic (and potential aerobatic) manoeuvres on the accident flight occurred a significant time before the engine power loss,” the report said.
“Although these manoeuvres may have unported one of the fuel tanks during the en-route phase, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that they contributed to the subsequent engine power loss during the airborne ALA inspection.”
A 7.30/Fairfax report in 2018 also said the pilot who was flying the plane that crashed had no incidents on his record and they understood he was allowed to reapply for his pilot’s licence following the CASA investigation as part of a confidential settlement.
The ATSB also recommended that CASA improve its procedures and guidance for “scoping surveillance events”.
Ms O’Dowd is seeking approximately $3 million, including about $174,000 in general damages and more than $2 million for future economic loss.
She claimed she suffered injuries including fractures, a traumatic brain injury, and a minor stroke from the crash, spent about 10 days in an induced coma, and underwent numerous surgeries.
The statement of claim said her ongoing cognitive difficulties will impair her ability at work.
According to the court claim, Ms O’Dowd’s parents are also each seeking damages — not less than $750,000 — for the nervous shock and personal injuries they say they’ve suffered since being told their daughter had been involved in a plane crash.
The now-24-year-old has blogged extensively before about her recovery, including how as an adult she never expected to re-live “firsts” — such as “first steps, first words, first day at university”.
In one blog post in December 2017, she paid tribute to her friend, Joss, who didn’t survive the crash.
She said they met each other while travelling.
“She has made me appreciate all the good things about this world so much more,” she wrote.
“I could spend hours and hours considering what if things had been different. She didn’t sit around and wait to think back ‘what if’. She was the type of person who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go and get it.
“I’m so glad that for the time we spent together. I will endeavour to do her proud. She had so much life left to live.”
In another post, she revealed that soon after she was allowed to return to the UK with her parents, her mother found out she had breast cancer.
“My Mum was treated in the same hospital as me, just a different building,” she wrote.
“The porters and ambulance drivers there were rather confused as we were each driven one day as a patient, and another day as a visitor/guardian.
“My Dad had the impossible task of supporting a daughter through half a year of hospitalisation and a wife through breast cancer treatment. But my Dad made the impossible, possible.”
Ms O’Dowd went on to write a play, titled Unknown, about the trauma her friends and family went through in the wake of her accident.
It was performed at the University of Exeter’s Drama Festival in 2018, as well as last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
CASA is yet to file a defence and has declined to comment on the lawsuit.