$48 Million Airline Accident Verdict Affirmed… 14 Years Later

shutterstock_138676277This week the US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit upheld a District Court’s judgment in a New York case, Saladino v. American Airlines. The decision was more than a decade in the making and stems from a highly unusual aviation accident.

In 1999 – 14 years ago which is just crazy – the plaintiff was employed by American Airlines as a baggage handler at JFK in New York. . While on the job he was struck in the head by the hood of a baggage tractor. At the time of the accident, plaintiff was a passenger on the tractor that was parked behind a jet. When the jet engines started to warm up for flight, they caused the tractor hood to flip open and strike the plaintiff’s head. Tragically the accident left him quadriplegic.

In 2001, plaintiffs sued the manufacturers of the tractor, Stewart and Stevenson Tug (S&S). S&S then impleaded American Airlines seeking contribution and indemnification.

At trial the jury was given evidence that the tractor had once been equipped with a cab that might have protected the plaintiff during the accident. The tractor was unlike normal passenger vehicles in that the hood was designed to open up to 180 degrees and thus enter the passenger compartment. This specific tractor had previously had a cab but after it was damaged in an unrelated accident, American Airlines failed to replace it. Further, the rubber latches that had kept the hood fastened to the frame had deteriorated over time thus when the tractor was subject to the jetwash, the hood flew open.

So this poor guy just happened to be in the perfect storm. Had just one of these elements not been present, there is a good chance plaintiff would have not been injured. But that’s how these things happen. So many awful accidents are million to one shots.

Given the tractor design aspects, plaintiffs’ theory at trial was that S&S was liable for failure to warn users that operating the vehicle without a cab and without adequate latches could result in injury due to the design of the hood.

In 2007, the District Court awarded summary judgment to the defendants on all claims except plaintiffs’ failure to warn theory and the derivative loss of consortium claim. These claims went to trial.

The jury found for the plaintiffs. Fault was apportioned as follows: 30% to S&S, 70% to American. A subsequent jury awarded plaintiffs a final judgment of $48,323,925.93. That is a big verdict to say the least.

Before getting into the appeal, a few thoughts on the fact pattern in this case. I agree with plaintiffs in that a baggage tractor with highly unusual characteristics should carry a warning about those characteristics. It just makes sense, right? The odds of the plaintiff ever having to open the hood during the normal course of moving bags seems slim. Further, even if plaintiff did have experience with the mechanics of the hood, he was not responsible for tractor maintenance thus he would not have been expecting the potential danger posed by the worn down latches.

Defendants appealed both the jury’s findings and denial of remittitur to the Circuit Court. S&S argued that the plaintiffs’ failure to warn theory was invalid because it was not foreseeable that the tractor would be used in a “modified” state (without a cab). The Circuit Court flatly rejected this argument finding that it was fully foreseeable, perhaps even probable, that the tractor would be used without the cab given that the cab was sold as a separate component.

I agree with the court: if a manufacturer sells a tractor without a cab they should expect that users will indeed use it in its factory condition. This argument is weak and was properly rejected.

Also at appeal, American argued that plaintiffs’ theory was insufficient because plaintiff did not submit expert testimony regarding the content, form and placement of a hypothetical warning label. The court also rejected this argument because New York does not have a rule requiring expert testimony for failure to warn actions. The court correctly found that expert testimony simply wasn’t necessary because of the relatively simple nature of the hood, cab, and hinges. This makes sense: at issue here are very elementary devices. If the case were about advanced heart surgery, a layman’s explanation wouldn’t be sufficient.

Further, S&S argued that the failure to warn was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries because the product’s danger was obvious thus making a warning superfluous. The court similarly rejected this because the reasonable person would not foresee the hood’s potential danger given that they were unlikely to regularly encounter similarly designed hoods.
Finally, defendants argued that plaintiff was a “knowledgeable user” of the tractor, and that he knew or should have known of the specific danger the vehicle posed. This argument failed because most of American’s tractors were made by different companies that did not have similar hoods. I also agree with the court here. If the majority of American’s tractors were not made by S&S then plaintiff could not have known of the danger he was in.

In addition to rejecting defendants’ arguments against the District Court’s judgment, the Circuit Court found no abuse in discretion in the monetary award thus it was upheld.

While we could debate the proper damages amount for this injury, I agree with the court upholding the previous ruling. This plaintiff was permanently injured in a bizarre accident that could have been prevented if American maintained its baggage tractors and if S&S designed their products in a more logical way. While the facts of this case are unusual, American and S&S should have foreseen the possibility of tractors being behind running planes. Plaintiff’s injury was not probable, of course, but that is not the standard. We have ample evidence of the risk and it should have been foreseen by these companies.

So, hopefully, there is some finality now to this 14 year-old case. Because I don’t see the Supreme Court showing much of an interest.

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