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Shaky Ride Yields $2.2M in Lawsuit

October 8, 1999 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ A jury awarded $2.22 million Thursday to 13 people traumatized by severe plane turbulence. The plaintiffs included the sister of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who found the plane ride more frightening than her brother’s movies.

``My brother has spent his life scaring me; but they were games,″ Nancy Spielberg said after the jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan returned its verdict. ``I would really rather feel fear on Dolby sound with popcorn than by a real-life, near-death experience.″

She called the verdict a slap on the wrist for American Airlines, which had admitted liability but contested the amount which should be awarded for the turbulence aboard the June 26, 1995, Los Angeles-to-New York flight.

``They really need more like a punch in the face,″ she said.

Mark Slitt, a spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline, said he was disappointed by the size of the verdict.

``We have not studied it in detail,″ he said, saying the airline would weigh its legal options when it did so.

The jury ended four hours of deliberations by awarding individual damages ranging from $150,000 to $215,000 for the 28 seconds of turbulence.

Most damages were for emotional trauma after lawyers for the plaintiffs took the unique legal position that fear of death was so damaging that it deserved a large award usually given to those with physical injuries.

``The real message is that it’s not inconsequential when you scare people and they think they’re going to die,″ said James P. Kreindler, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who were among 101 people on the flight.

Kreindler said the airline could have avoided the turbulence by steering around a storm and should have illuminated a seat belt sign to warn passengers about the possibility of rough weather ahead.

Miriam Lewinger, a 74-year-old New Rochelle woman who was awarded $150,000, said she was ``absolutely delighted″ by the verdict.

``This seems like a fair reward. Nothing could really reward us for the pain and suffering and emotional strain,″ she said.

``I’m glad it’s over. I’m hoping that all the airlines get the message,″ she added.

She testified during the trial that she is still haunted by the screams, despite counseling she had received.

The jury awarded $160,000 to Ms. Spielberg of Riverdale, N.Y. Her two daughters, ages 6 and 2 during the turbulence, were awarded a total of $375,000.

Ms. Spielberg testified during the one-week trial that the turbulence tossed her against the ceiling just after she had begun playing a card game with her 6-year-old daughter, Jessica.

She said people flew over seats and into aisles and the plane made a groaning noise before it nosedived as a chorus of screams and cries filled the fuselage.

``And I knew at this point _ it wasn’t a matter of thinking _ I just knew that we were going to die,″ she said. ``Nobody was calm. Everybody thought we were dying.″

The turbulence hit while Flight 58 was over Minnesota. It made an emergency landing in Chicago.