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From Products Liability Law Daily, February 8, 2019

No new trial or damages award reduction in commercial aircraft cabin decompression suit

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

The Massachusetts federal court has rejected Boeing Company’s challenges to a jury’s earlier $2.2-million damages award to a Boston-bound woman for injuries she sustained when the Boeing 757 in which she was a passenger experienced rapid decompression after a hole appeared in the aircraft’s fuselage.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. was not entitled to either a new trial or a reduction of the jury’s April 2018 multi-million damages award to a passenger who suffered physical and emotional injuries after the cabin pressure of the aircraft in which she was traveling dropped suddenly, the federal court in Massachusetts ruled, denying the manufacturer’s motions for a new trial or a reduced verdict based on erroneous evidentiary rulings and egregious conduct by the passenger’s counsel, among other things (Guzman v. Boeing Co., February 6, 2019, Dein, J.).

A Costa Rican woman who had been on an American Airlines flight that experienced a rapid decompression incident that caused the aircraft, a Boeing 757, to drop suddenly and the oxygen masks to be deployed allegedly sustained decompression sickness and various mental ailments due to the incident. She was among several passengers who filed suit against the aircraft manufacturer after the company agreed to accept responsibility for any damages caused by the incident; however, all the other passengers’ claims were settled before trial.

The woman’s claims were tried before a jury in April 2018, which returned a verdict concluding that she suffered $2.2 million in damages, but that she had failed to mitigate $726,000 of those damages. Thereafter, the court entered judgment for the passenger that took into account the failure to mitigate and included prejudgment interest at the rate of 12 percent, resulting in a total judgment of $2,271,651.60 [see Product Liability Law Daily’s April 23, 2018 analysis]. Boeing moved for a new trial as well as to amend the judgment, maintaining that the jury award was excessive because the evidence of the passenger’s pain and suffering did not support the award. Further, the manufacturer contended that the passenger’s failure to have mitigated her damages mandated the conclusion that the award was excessive.

Damages award. The jury’s award compensated the passenger for her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), her major depressive disorder and, to a lesser extent, her decompression sickness. Because the physical effects of decompression sickness lasted only a few days after the incident and were not expected to cause the passenger any continuing problems, the parties agreed that virtually all of the jury’s award had been rendered in compensation for her emotional ailments resulting from the incident.

Pointing out that other courts have upheld million-dollar verdicts for PTSD claims even absent physical injuries, the trial court observed that the $2.2 million had been awarded to compensate the passenger for her suffering during the almost eight years following the decompression event, which the jury then reduced by approximately one-third for the passenger’s failure to have mitigated her damages.

Acknowledging that the award probably was higher than what would have resulted from a bench trial, the court nevertheless found there was ample evidence that the passenger suffered from severe PTSD and a major depressive disorder, that the jury’s reduction of the award for failure to mitigate was supported by the record, and that there was no evidence that the jury had acted out of any improper motive in awarding the damages. Accordingly, the court held that there was no basis on which to disturb the award.

Mitigation. As for Boeing’s contention that the jury’s failure to taken into account the fact that the passenger could have recovered from any of her alleged injuries "within a matter of months" established that the award was excessive, the court noted that the jury’s reduction of its award by one-third established that the jury had considered the issue of mitigation and reasonably had concluded that the passenger should have sought alternative treatment several years earlier than she did. It was within the jury’s province to reach that conclusion, the court observed. Therefore, the court could not rule that the passenger was obligated to engage in any specific type of treatment for her PTSD and depression, especially since she had undertaken some form of treatment.

New trial request. Boeing further argued that the conduct of the passenger’s counsel was so egregious as to warrant a new trial. According to the court, while there was no question that counsel for both sides had very different styles (the passenger’s counsel was more flamboyant while the manufacturer’s counsel was more methodical), Boeing’s argument for a new trial primarily was based on statements made by the passenger’s counsel to which the company had raised no objections at trial.

Moreover, the court said it could not be concluded that the passenger had improperly inflamed the jury, nor that any errors by her counsel had been so egregious as to warrant either a new trial or a reduction in damages. Contrary to Boeing’s contention, this was not a case where the counsel’s misconduct affected the aircraft manufacturer’s substantial rights and resulted in a verdict that was untethered to the evidence, shocked the conscience, or amounted to a denial of justice.

Evidentiary challenges. Equally egregious enough to warrant a new trial from Boeing’s perspective were several erroneous evidentiary rulings made by the court. However, with respect to the company’s claim that the passenger had improperly dropped her claim for economic losses shortly before trial and then had attempted to introduce evidence that led the jury to award her damages for not being able to work, the court refused to find that she had attempted to put her economic loss claim into evidence or that the jury’s verdict reflected an award based on economic loss.

In response to Boeing’s contention that the passenger should not have been allowed to introduce excerpts from the depositions of two other passengers seated near her on the plane or a photograph of the aircraft showing a tear in the fuselage because such evidence was inflammatory, the court opined that both the other witnesses’ limited testimony and the photograph were relevant and helped put the ailing passenger’s experience in context. Consequently, Boeing’s motion for a new trial was denied.

Prejudgment interest. Regarding the aircraft manufacturer’s motion to amend the judgment to preclude any award of prejudgment interest, both parties had agreed during the pretrial conference that Massachusetts law (under which a plaintiff is entitled to prejudgment interest at a rate of 12 percent per year from the date of commencement of the action) should apply rather than Florida law (where prejudgment interest is not recoverable on personal-injury awards).

Undertaking a conflict-of-laws analysis between Massachusetts, the flight’s destination, and Florida, the airspace over which the decompression incident occurred, the court determined that the relevant factors weighed in favor of applying Massachusetts law. Consequently, Boeing’s motion to amend the judgment to preclude any award of prejudgment interest also was denied.

Miscellaneous post-trial motions. Finally, in a separate opinion issued on the same date, the court disposed of several of the parties’ post-trial motions as follows: (1) allowed in part and denied in part Boeing’s motion for disallowance and objections to plaintiff’s bill of costs; (2) allowed in part and denied in part Boeing’s motion to compel resolution of outstanding expert deposition fee issues; (3) declared as moot the passenger’s motion to alter or amend judgment in light of her subsequent notice of withdrawal of that motion; and (4) allowed Boeing’s motion to stay the execution of judgment pending the manufacturer’s appeal and to waive the bond requirement.

The case is No. 13-12615-JGD.

Attorneys: Christopher D. Stombaugh (DiCello Levitt & Casey) for Adriana Guzman. Daniel P. Ridlon (Perkins Coie LLP) and Kathleen M. Guilfoyle (Campbell, Campbell, Edwards & Conroy, PC) for Boeing Co.

Companies: Boeing Co.

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews EvidentiaryNews DefensesLiabilityNews ExpertEvidenceNews AircraftWatercraftNews MassachusettsNews

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