Citing a concern with the bottom line over safety, the widow and children of a Special Forces vet killed in February while filming a military-themed Discovery Channel show took its parent company to court this week in a wrongful death and negligence suit. Grisel Donatelli, Amanda Donatelli and Dominic Donatelli named Discovery Communications, producers Eyeworks USA, Bongo Inc, Van Nuys Copters, Crossbow Helicopters and Orbic Air and others in the complaint (read it here) filed late Thursday in LA Superior Court. Cast member Michael Donatelli, cameraman Darren Rydstrom and pilot David Gibbs died in the early morning of February 10 when the helicopter the trio was in crashed in an open field at the Polsa Rosa Ranch in Acton.
The new complaint alleges this accident and others like it occurred in part because Discovery and other defendants wanted to save a buck and increase their profits. “Discovery, Discovery Talent, Eyeworks, Bongo and Does 51 through 100 and each of them, also have had an extensive history of knowingly failing to provide adequate safety measures for the filming of reality series such as this one,” the filing says. “These safety problems were the result of cost-cutting measures aimed at increasing profits as a result of conscious disregard of the additional, unacceptable safety risks imposed. These safety problems have resulted in injuries and death in the filming of such television series, and have continued to do so following the death of Decedent Donatelli,” it adds. In late February, director/DOP John Driftmier and a pilot were killed when their small plane crashed while filming aerial footage for the Discovery Canada series Dangerous Flights. In March, sound technician Ken Hathcock sued Discovery Channel for negligence after being thrown from an ATV after it drove into a hidden ditch while he working on a series for the channel in Oklahoma. In June, the family of Terry Flannel filed a wrongful death suit against Discovery Channel over a pyrotechnics stunt accident on the set of the WWII-themed Brothers In Arms pilot.
Seeking unspecified economic damages from loss of financial support and earnings as well as punitive damages, prejudgment interest and legal costs, the Donatellis’ 23-page three count complaint requests a 15-day jury trial. Discovery is not named in the wrongful death count of the complaint, but it is cited in the negligent hiring/retention/training/supervision/entrustment count and the survival action damages counts. The complaint also alleges that Discovery and others knew that pilot Gibbs had a spotty safety record and had his license suspended by the FAA on several occasions. It also claims that the pilot and the various chopper companies were “unfit to operate the Helicopter, particularly for a flight intended to include significant dangers of a crash including low-altitude flight, hilly terrain and low lighting conditions at 3:30 AM.”
While this is the first time Discovery has been named as a defendant in the accident, it is the second wrongful death suit so far to come out of the tragedy on the untitled show. On May 29, Jerie Rydstrom filed a complaint against Eyeworks producers JD Roth and Todd Nelson, the Gibbs-owned Crossbow as well as Van Nuys Copters and Orbic Air over her son’s death. The Donatelli family is represented by Patrick Gunning, Brian Panish and Kevin Boyle of LA firm Panish Shea & Boyle LLP.