On January 17, 1999, Vito Saladino, then 36 years old, was working for American Airlines as a baggage handler at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. Mr. Saladino was a passenger in a baggage tractor driven by a co-worker and as they passed a parked jet, backwash from the jet’s engine caused the baggage tractor’s hood to lift up and strike Mr. Saladino’s head. The impact fractured his cervical spine and rendered hm a quadriplegic.
A lawsuit was commenced in 2001 in the United States District Court in Brooklyn (usually such a case would be brought in state court but because the parties were citizens of different states, so-called diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S. Code Section 1332 allowed plaintiff to choose federal court instead).
Trial in November 2008 resulted in a jury finding that two parties caused the accident – the manufacturer of the baggage tractor, Stewart & Stevenson Services, Inc. and its related companies (30%) and the owner of the vehicle, American Airlines (70%).
The tractor should have been equipped with a cab and latches that might have prevented the injury from the fly-away hood. The defendants were therefore liable on a failure to warn theory– users operating the vehicle without a cab and without adequate latches did not know the hood could swing back, enter the passenger compartment and strike an occupant.
A separate trial on damages was held in July 2010 and plaintiff was awarded pain and suffering damages in the sum of $15,000,000 ($5,000,000 past – nine years, $10,000,000 future – 24 years). The trial judge issued a decision denying the defendants’ motion for a new trial on the grounds of excessiveness.
The defendants then appealed both the liability and damages verdicts; however, in Saladino v. American Airlines, Inc. (2d Cir. 2012), the federal appellate court has now affirmed the entire verdict.
Here are some details of the tragic nature of plaintiff’s injuries and losses:
- multiple cervical spine fractures
- numerous surgeries including corpectomies (removal of vertebral bone and disc material) at C-4 and C-5 and spinal fusion
- about a year and a half as an inpatient in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities
- feeling only above collar bone and at top of shoulders
- cannot open or close fingers and operates electric wheelchair by leaning on a joystick
- requires 24 hour a day home care with nurses and health care aides
- incontinence: requires constant catheterization for bladder evacuation and nurse to manually clear bowels
The defendants did not challenge the nature and severity of plaintiff’s injuries; they merely claimed that the verdict amounts were much too high. In comparing the awards in this case with awards approved by appellate courts in other similar cases, the defense pointed to the fact that Mr. Saladino experiences little physical pain on a daily basis. In those cases in which as much as $10,000,000 has been approved by New York appeals courts for pain and suffering, the defense correctly noted that the plaintiffs experienced excruciating pain on an ongoing, chronic basis.
The appellate judges in Mr. Saladino’s case dismissed the “no pain” argument approving the trial judge’s decision which noted that in the cases cited by the defendants the paralysis was less (paraplegia versus quadriplegia) and that in this case Mr. Saladino has complete understanding of his “near-total loss of physical limitations” and the fact that he “is essentially a prisoner in his own body, dependent on others for every moment of his day.”
In connection with their excessiveness claim, the defendants argued that the the federal appellate court was limited in its review of comparable cases to those cases decided by New York’s Appellate Division Second Department (to which an appeal would have been taken had this case been brought in the state court). That argument was made because it’s widely thought that the Second Department (hearing appeals from 10 downstate counties such as Kings, Queens, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester) is less likely than the First Department (which hears appeals from the Bronx and Manhattan) to allow higher verdicts to stand and more likely to order a reduction. The judges in Saladino rejected this defense argument noting that there is “no binding authority for this proposition” and that “it would be odd for a federal court to disregard potential informative cases arising in other parts of the state.”
- In closing arguments, plaintiff’s’ attorney asked the jury to award pain and suffering damages in the sum of $40,000,000 whereas one of the defendants’ attorneys suggested $5,000,000 and the other suggested $2,500,000.
- The verdict also included (a) past medical expenses in the sum of $4,908,108 (to which all counsel stipulated) and future medical expenses in the sum of $18,000,000 (over 24 years) and (b) past and future loss of earnings in the sum of $1,532,309.
- Mrs. Saladino presented a loss of consortium claim. Although separated and living apart since 2008 when Mr. Saladino moved out of the marital home, Mrs. Saladino had left work for two years immediately after the accident to care for her husband, intimate physical relations were non-existent and the marriage was destroyed by the accident. The jury awarded her $750,000 (after her attorney asked for $1,000,000 with defense counsel suggesting $500,000).