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Jury awards Flight 1420 survivor $5.7 million

by ANDREA HARTER | April 19, 2001 at 5:38 a.m.

After more than 10 hours of deliberating, a federal jury Wednesday awarded Nancy Chu $5.7 million for mental and physical injuries she received in the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420, but denied all the punitive damages she had sought.

The punitive damages claim concerned a sexual affair with an American Airlines employee, Jim Struthers, who was sent to care for Chu in Little Rock after the June 1, 1999, crash at Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field. The affair began nine days after the crash while Struthers was still on his Customer Assistance Relief Effort, or CARE, Team assignment.

While the punitive claim did not net Chu money, the jury found it had some merit. It found that Struthers was acting within the scope of his employment.

The affair began two days before he was officially released from that assignment, but the jury did not find that his conduct constituted outrageous behavior that exacerbated Chu's condition.

Jury foreman Barbara Hill received permission from U.S. District Judge Henry Woods to read the statement in open court after the midafternoon verdict.

"In view of the evidence presented in this case regarding the C.A.R.E., we recommend that AA add a scenario in the training program to include potential problems that can occur when CARE Team members become personally involved with victims or family members," the jury statement said.

Woods wrote to the jury that while the statement could be read, it would have "no legal or binding effect on this case or any of the issues."

The five-woman, three-man jury also asked Woods by note who would pay Chu's attorney fees and court costs. Woods wrote back that Chu's attorney fees would come out of her settlement and the court costs would be paid by the losing party.

Chu said she would not comment on the verdict, but appeared pleased.

Frank Branson, Chu's Dallas attorney, said he was happy with the compensatory award, which was just $200,000 less than the maximum amount he'd suggested to the jury during closing arguments.

While it was not delineated as such, some of the award was to compensate Chu for pain and suffering. Much of the testimony centered around Chu's deep grief for an Arkadelphia teen-ager, Rachel Fuller, who died from her burns 16 days after the crash.

Charlie Fuller, Rachel's father and also a passenger, found his daughter after she emerged from the burning plane, and moved her away from the wreckage. He asked a stranger, Chu, to tend to Rachel while he sought paramedics. Chu testified she is still haunted that she could not do more for Rachel.

Chu's attorneys had presented evidence that she has been brain-damaged since the crash and suffers from acute post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Chu, a former stockbroker's assistant at Morgan Keegan, took medical disability from her job last year after she could not complete simple clerical tasks because of confusion, disorientation and mood instability.

On the punitive issue, Branson said he felt Chu has achieved a moral victory, since the jury felt strongly enough to make a statement about it.

"We're very pleased. The jury gave Nancy what was fair and reasonable, and ... they sent a message to American Airlines," Branson said, adding that he is looking forward to the next phase of the Chu case, which concerns a larger punitive issue, whether or not American provided the highest degree of care in dispatch and operation of Flight 1420.

Chu was returning from a Memorial Day vacation in San Francisco when Flight 1420 crashed after landing in a storm, hitting a set of light poles, careening over an embankment and breaking in half. Eleven people died, including the pilot.

Chu was the first domestic passenger to take her case to trial. Under the Warsaw Convention, passengers returning from international flights are barred from seeking punitive damage. International passengers are only allowed to seek compensatory damages, designed to compensate passengers for their injuries.

Chu and the other domestic passengers are to share in a separate punitive damage award to be determined later.

Two international passengers have taken their cases to trial. The first trial resulted in an $11 million judgment, and jurors in the other case returned a $6.5 million judgment.

American Airlines' attorneys, a mixture of local counsel, from the Barber McCaskill Jones & Hale firm of Little Rock, and New York-based Thompson & Knight, said they were not permitted to comment on the case.

But corporate spokesman John Hotard issued a statement from American's Fort Worth headquarters saying that the company was happy with the verdict.

"We are pleased that the jury did not award punitive damages in this instance, this was a consensual affair that lasted for 8 months," he said.

"As for the jury's recommendation, our care program is under revision now and we will certainly take the jury's recommendation into consideration as we strengthen the program," he said.

Struthers was fired after lawyers at headquarters discovered the affair, but his manager knew about it months before any action was taken. Struthers was given a raise for his work with the Customer Assistance Relief Effort Team even though he had violated an unwritten company rule about fraternizing with plane crash survivors or their relatives.

Hotard said the company has not decided if it will pursue an appeal.

The jury, described by both sides as "the voice of the community," was comprised of three computer-industry professionals, a Baptist minister's wife, a teacher, a man who'd suffered injuries after a hand grenade exploded near him during Navy duty, the head of security for Baptist Medical Center and an oncology nurse.

Woods told the jury the Chu case was "one of the most difficult" and complex that had been tried before him.

Jury selection begins Monday for the case of Benton resident Stephanie Manus and her two children, who were seated behind the wings of the MD-82 jet.

Manus testified before the National Transportation Safety Board's hearing in January 2000 about the need for safety seats on airplanes and since the crash has been vocal on child-safety issues.

The safety board made note in its preliminary reports that Manus' youngest child, Emily, now 4, was better protected during the crash because she was strapped into a child safety seat.

Copyright © 2001, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.


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