Thank you, William Shakespeare, for that bit of all-too-tempting advice, as voiced by Dick the Butcher in the bard’s Henry VI: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
These words came to mind immediately on reading reports on June 14 that 10 passengers from a Jet Blue flight are suing the airline following an incident in which one of its pilots broke down, began acting erratically and had to be subdued by passengers.
It happened on March 27 on a flight from New York to Las Vegas. Pilot Clayton Osbon, according to witnesses, began running down the aisle shouting and was subsequently locked out of the cockpit. The flight diverted to Amarillo, Texas, where it landed safely.
The “gross negligence” suit names JetBlue and Osbon. Steven B. Epstein and Jonathan C. Reiter, attorneys for the passengers, are asking for unspecified damages.
Which brings me to my own story. It was in the summer of 1986, a day before my birthday. I was a passenger in a restored Consolidated PBY Catalina, one of two flying boats involved in a reenactment of the first transatlantic flight by the U.S. Navy in 1919. I was the photojournalist assigned by the Navy to document the flight, which began in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and ended badly for one of the aircraft, the airplane to which I was assigned for that leg of the reenactment.
The Catalina was owned by the Bob Franks of Los Angeles and flown by Lou Petersen, an experienced pilot with thousands of hours in flying boats. Those of us in the back were expecting to first make low pass over the intended area in England’s Plymouth Harbor before coming back around for the landing, the standard procedure for the pilot of a flying boat. As we neared the water on the low pass, I heard someone up in the front of the airplane shout, “We’re landing!” The tone on his voice left no doubt that something was going wrong.
I immediately grabbed the naval historian and we dove for seats in the cabin, just forward of the observation blisters. I managed to fasten my seat belt as I felt the airplane hit the water, nose down. I reached across the table separating us, grabbed our historian by the arms and we hung on as the airplane began skidding, tail up, yawing across the harbor.
Within seconds we were out of the landing area, which was free from obstacles. The left wing tip hit a buoy. Then the right wing caught a channel marker, which ripped off about three feet of the wing and sent us into the water-equivalent of a ground loop. The Catalina came to an abrupt halt in a shower of spray.
The original impact had collapsed the nose gear door and the succeeding two bulkheads and we began to slowly sink. Within minutes rescue units from the Royal Marines were alongside and we offloaded two injured passengers. The rest of us were OK.
I spent a good part of that evening in a darkroom at the nearby naval base, Sometime around midnight I found my way to my hotel and collapsed into bed.
The next morning, shortly after sunrise, I had three phone calls from lawyers who insisted on representing me. I should sue for damages, they said, pointing out that the pilot and owner of the airplane were obviously negligent, and I deserved compensation for the trauma I had undergone.
Two of them accepted “no thanks” as an answer. The third required a more to-the-point, if inelegant, response. When I told him I had been neither traumatized nor injured, and in fact was planning to fly home the next day, he said bluntly that this didn’t matter, and that by retaining him, I might nevertheless win “a large settlement.” At that point my language became a bit more salty, in keeping with that of a senior chief petty officer, and the poor fellow hung up.
In short, the answer was still no. And my boss, who had been injured, told me later he must have had calls from the same lawyers. He told them the same thing, though his language, as an officer and gentleman, was less colorful than mine.
Which brings me back to the 10 passengers who are suing JetBlue. Based on story in the June 14 issue of the New York Post, they have all suffered trauma that only unspecified, but no doubt large, sums of money will assuage. JetBlue has “taken away my faith in flying,” Kathy Euler of Smithtown, Long Island was quoted as saying. “The airlines cannot always be trusted to get us home safely,” reporter Kieran Crowly wrote, quoting one of the attorneys.
The entire sad affair is one in which the airline gets sued and the pilot gets sued. And assuming their attorneys are successful, the 10 passengers, and their lawyers, get rich.
Hallelujah! Isn’t that what America’s about these days? We’re all just waiting to become victims of some injustice, perceived or real. Immediately thereafter we hire lawyers and climb aboard the gravy train. Which is a good way to travel for those passengers suing JetBlue, as they’re obviously way too traumatized to ever fly again.
It’s almost enough to make you think ol’ Dick the Butcher was right. And perhaps their greedy clients, as well.