Big surprise: Lawsuits could be on the horizon in US Airways flight 1549 accident

Today marks one month since the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” when US Airways flight 1549 ditched into the New York river and narrowly avoided catastrophe after colliding with a flock of birds and losing both engines shortly after take off from LaGuardia.

The flight’s captain, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, has become a national hero, but the incident itself has largely faded from the spotlight, helped in no small part by this past week’s plane crash in Buffalo.

A week after the US Airways accident, Tom posted about the airline being prompt in its efforts to financially compensate every passenger on board the plane that day — to the tune of $5,000 each, plus a fare refund. A Gadling reader named Bill commented, “I’m guessing those $5,000 checks won’t stop any lawsuits.”

Bill might be right.
I was sifting through some of last month’s coverage of the accident this afternoon when I stumbled upon this story in USA Today. The story, among other things, reports that a New York law firm called Kreindler & Kreindler is already — surprise, surprise — sniffing around the fringes of the accident to see what lawsuits can be filed. Specifically, a partner at the firm named Noah Kushlefsky tells the newspaper that several passengers have contacted the firm since the accident and that right now lawyers are looking into what injuries and emotional distress passengers might have suffered and whether they are actionable.

Two things are important to point out. First, according to various accounts, most passengers say they’ve been very satisfied with how US Airways has handled the accident’s aftermath. They say the compensation is generous and claim to have no plans to sue. Second, most of those who say they are not happy insist the $5,000 check from the airline simply isn’t enough to cover all they lost in the accident. (US Airways says that it will cover claims above $5,000 if passengers indeed lost more.)

That doesn’t seem good enough for at least one passenger, Joe Hart, a salesman from Charlotte.

Mr. Hart says he lost more than $5,000 worth of personal belongings. But it appears he’s thinking beyond just straight compensation. He tells USA Today that he has talked to a lawyer in Charlotte and is waiting “to see how things play out with US Airways. I’m hopeful US Airways understands the significance of the incident.”

Gail Dunham, the director of the National Air Disaster Alliance & Foundation, says $5,000 is not enough from US Airways because, among other things, passengers experienced a “terrific ordeal” (Read: mental anguish, post traumatic stress, etc…)

That’s what Mr. Hart is citing: He tells USA Today that flying for him has become “progressively more difficult” during the six flights he’s made since the accident. On a LA-Philadelphia run recently, he said he was sweaty and nervous and “felt every bid of turbulence.”

So, what do you think? To me, it sounds like Mr. Hart is already laying the groundwork for a lawsuit based on emotional distress.

I am all for passengers recovering what they lost in the accident, and if it is indeed more than $5,000 that’s fine.

However, it seems outright laughable, given the pretty much universal conclusion that the crew of Flight 1549, including Capt. Sullenberger, performed their jobs to the highest standards and saved 150 lives, that anyone would be considering suing the airline for something like negligence or mental anguish. Hell, did you hear Capt. Sullenberger on 60 Minutes? He said he couldn’t sleep for three days after the accident! Can he sue?

And let’s not even get into the ambulance-chasing element of a law firm like Kreindler & Kreindler, which, one can safely assume, is at least telling those who have called the firm that they may truly have a case. After all, they have lawyers looking into things — though what, exactly, is hard to know: The airplane struck a flock of birds.

I don’t want to get too down about this before any legal action is actually taken, but I was sort of hoping that this whole thing would pass without the utterance of that most sacred of American traditions: the lawsuit. Weren’t you?

Spend any significant amount of time outside the United States and you gradually come to understand that people are less curious about our politics than they are about our fixation on punishment and resolution, and our ultimate faith in the judicial system as the chief instrument to meet those ends.

That America is a litigious society is undeniable, and outsiders want to know why this is so. They see a country of overcrowded jails, a country where legal redress is a warm blanket against the cold, a country where people probably won’t be all that surprised if someone sued the very airline that actually saved his life.

Anymore, they see a country where the words “land of the free” never ring quite as loudly as “see you in court.”