Airline must pay in secondhand smoke death
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the largest secondhand smoking award to date in the United States, a federal judge Monday ordered Olympic Airways to pay $700,000 to survivors of a California man who died from being seated too close to a plane's smoking section.
According to Richard Daynard, an expert on tobacco litigation at Northeastern University, only one other secondhand smoking case has ended with an order to compensate the victim, a prison guard who was exposed to tobacco smoke on the job.
Daynard said that although almost all planes now are smoke-free, the new ruling should be viewed as a warning that all types of employers are putting themselves "at serious risk" if they fail to train their staffs to respond properly to complaints about secondhand smoke.
Abid M. Hanson, 52, a Castro Valley physician, died in January 1998, after a flight attendant refused to change his seat on an Olympic flight from Athens to San Francisco. He sat three rows in front of the smoking section.
In finding Olympic negligent, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer considered evidence that the attendant paid little attention to a series of increasingly urgent pleas by Hanson's wife, Rubina Husain.
The attendant said the plane was "totally full," though it was not. After Husain made her third request to change her husband's seat, the attendant advised her Hanson could walk through the cabin and try to find someone who would swap with him.
More than two hours after the flight started, as Hanson walked toward the front of the cabin to breathe fresher air, he suffered a respiratory attack. Attempts to revive him with drugs, oxygen and CPR were unsuccessful.
No autopsy was performed, and Olympic argued in court that a food allergy or unknown medical problem provoked the fatal attack. But Breyer said the evidence pointed "at least in significant part" to "smoke inhalation which triggered a severe asthmatic reaction." The judge also ruled that the flight attendant's refusal to change Hanson's seat or report the seat-change request to a supervisor was "willful misconduct" and a violation of standards for passenger care.
The attendant "deliberately closed her eyes to the probable consequences of her acts," Breyer wrote.
That finding permitted Breyer to exceed a $75,000 per passenger limit on liability set by the Warsaw Convention, a treaty on international air travel.
Based on Hanson's expected earnings, Breyer set his family's economic loss at $1.4 million. He reduced the award by half, however, after finding Hanson partly liable for his own death because he did not try to switch seats with another passenger.
Susie Injijian, Husain's lawyer, said the Warsaw Convention was interpreted to permit a claim for secondhand smoke injuries in just one other case, a dispute litigated a few years ago in a Canadian court.
Stephen Fearon, Olympic's lawyer, said he will discuss a possible appeal with his client after he and Olympic review the opinion.