A federal court jury in Miami recently awarded a Park Avenue Law LLC client One Million Dollars (subsequently modified by the Court to $800,000) for the injuries he sustained when an American Airlines flight encountered severe turbulence while flying near the Bahamas. The evidence introduced during the five-day trial established that the American Airlines captain had received a weather briefing while at the Caribbean airport where the flight originated that had informed him that Hurricane Joaquin, a Category Four hurricane that would sink the huge container ship El Faro later that same day, was hovering over the Bahamas. The weather briefing also informed American’s captain that clear air turbulence could be expected within a band of altitudes ranging from 34,000 feet to 41,000 feet. Despite having that information, American’s captain and central dispatcher agreed on a route that would bring the flight in close proximity to the hurricane’s outer edges and at an altitude of 36,000 feet, which was well within the prediction for clear air turbulence along the route. Park Avenue Law LLC presented the testimony of a former senior captain for Delta Airlines who regularly evaluates pilots’ competency for the FAA, who said there was no reason why the flight could not have been conducted at a lower altitude that would have been outside of the turbulence forecast, and on a route that was significantly farther west of the hurricane. In fact, the expert testified that the route American had first chosen for the flight would have been “suicidal” given its proximity to the hurricane.
The evidence established that American’s captain never alerted the flight attendants to the severe weather that the flight would be encountering. His initial cockpit announcement to the passengers instructed them to “prepare for blast-off” and mockingly told them the flight crew would “try to get [them] there in one piece,” which several witnesses found unprofessional in light of what later happened. Several passengers testified that they were not made aware of any expected turbulence, and thought the flight would be a normal one. They observed the flight attendants provided two routine beverage services, and noticed several other passengers standing in the aisle and walking back to the lavatories during the flight. One witness testified that a flight attendant had agreed to summon a friend of his from the first-class cabin to come back to his coach class seat to speak with him, and that the friend had stood in the aisle speaking with him for at least 15 minutes just prior to the turbulence event. Another testified that she encouraged her husband to take a nap in an empty row of seats after specifically noting that the “fasten seat belts” light was not illuminated. A third witness confirmed that the seat belt light had been off until the turbulence had started to occur. In fact, the evidence showed that one of the flight attendants had been in the lavatory at the time, and another flight attendant suffered a sprained neck because he had not been able to get his seat belt buckled in time. In spite of that evidence, American insisted throughout the trial that the “fasten seat belts” sign had been illuminated for some time prior to the turbulence and that the captain had made a specific announcement about upcoming turbulence. The cockpit voice recorder would have resolved the issue about whether or not such an announcement had been made, but American destroyed its recording several weeks after the flight landed (before Park Avenue Law LLC was retained in the case).
The plaintiff testified that he had his seat belt fastened at all times on the flight, except when he had to unbuckle and stand up from his aisle seat to allow the middle seat and window seat passengers to get out to use the lavatory. When the middle seat passenger returned from the lavatory and requested to return to her seat, he unbuckled and prepared to stand up. Just as he did, he testified, the aircraft entered the turbulence and he was pitched into the bottom of the overhead compartment above his seat. The impact fractured his C-2 vertebrae in what is known in medicine as a “Hangman’s Fracture,” because it is the same type of fracture that a condemned person sustains in a judicial hanging. Two board-certified neurosurgeons testified that the plaintiff was at risk of sudden death from asphyxiation or of quadriplegia from the moment the fracture occurred until it healed four months later.