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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Automatic-door failures fuel injuries, tort claims, but road to recovery in litigation can be bumpy

Pixabay by djedj
An Australian woman struck by a malfunctioning airport security door was denied recovery in April after failing to prove that the malfunction caused her injury.  The outcome strikes me as questionable, and the case is instructive of tort principles anyway.

If you travel much, as I do, you probably have passed through those one-way transparent security doors that whip open and closed to allow only a person at a time to pass.  They frighten me a bit, and I never linger on the threshold.  The plaintiff in the instant case likewise denied having paused upon egress from Wagga Wagga City Airport arrivals in New South Wales, yet was struck by one of the doors.  She complained of shoulder and back injury, requiring surgery, and the court confirmed that the impact of the door at least worsened a preexisting condition.

Arrivals at Wagga Wagga Airport
(2012 photo by Bidgee CC BY-SA 3.0 AU)
The doors were in fact malfunctioning.  There are two batteries, at different heights, of photoelectric cells that sense a person in the way and prevent the doors from closing.  The lower set were out of commission.  However, tests and maintenance on the doors showed that the non-functioning cells were not essential for safety; the higher set still kept the doors open when so much as a person's leg was in the way.  The plaintiff therefore failed to show a causal connection between her injury and the malfunction, nor any alleged misfeasance by the airport defendant, such as a failure to warn.

The outcome strikes me as questionable, because there seems to be no dispute that the 44-year-old plaintiff was struck by the door, and that that's never supposed to happen.  Even if the photoelectric cell failure cannot be blamed, the case seems well suited to res ipsa loquitur, which, to the best of my knowledge, is recognized in New South Wales common law, and is not mentioned by the court.  Maybe the plaintiff failed to plead the theory.  Or maybe this is a Palsgraf-esque scenario in which the court concealed skepticism of the plaintiff's injury.  Of 100,000 arriving passengers annually, there were no other reported incidents, the court troubled to say.

Anyway, the case reminds me of one that I use sometimes in torts class to teach punitive damages with a dash of professional responsibility.  In 2015, 61-year-old James Hausman won a $21.5m verdict against the Holland America Line (HAL) after being hit by an automatic sliding door on a cruise ship, in an incident captured on camera.

There's plenty to inform a class discussion just there.  Hausman's injury did not look too bad in the video, but traumatic brain injury is tricky.  And the court awarded $16.5m in punitive damages after hearing about 16 other sliding-door injuries on HAL ships.  The plaintiff's lawyer accused HAL of trying to save on air conditioning, which HAL denied, the ABA Journal reported.

Then the case took a turn.  In 2016, the district court threw out the verdict after revelations of spoliation.  The ugly dissolution of an employment relationship between Hausman and a personal assistant led to an undiscovered personal email account and deleted messages that cast doubt on Hausman's veracity (ABA Journal, Seattle Times).  The court ordered a new trial and clarified that there was no evidence the plaintiff's attorney was complicit in wrongdoing.  The docket suggests that the case ended in settlement later that year.

The Australian case is Gray v. Wagga Wagga City Council, [2021] NSWDC 108, 07 April 2021 (Wolters Kluwer).  Simon Liddy at HWLEbsworth published commentary.  The American case is Hausman v. Holland America Line-USA, No. 2:13-cv-00937 (W.D. Wash. 2016) (Court Listener).

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