Manus v. American Airlines (American Airlines Flight 1420)

American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed on June 1, 1999, at the Little Rock National Airport in Little Rock, Arkansas during an intense thunderstorm which had begun crossing the airport as the aircraft was landing. Ten passengers and the flight captain were killed in the crash, and many others sustained serious physical injuries. The plane overran the end of the runway during landing and struck parts of the instrument landing system array, a chain link fence, went over a rock embankment and collided with a lighting system structure. The plane broke apart mid-fuselage, causing a fire to break out. Passengers who evacuated from the fire found themselves trying to take shelter in the shallows of the Arkansas River in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm. The flight was operating under an instrument flight rules flight plan. A significant meteorological information bulletin had been issued for severe thunderstorms in the Little Rock airport area.

The pilot was a long-term commercial pilot with over ten thousand flight hours, over seven thousand of which were as the pilot in command. The co-pilot had only worked for American Airlines for approximately a year but had extensive flying experience as a navy pilot. Flight 1420 was the final leg of a three-day sequence. The crew flew in from Salt Lake City around forty minutes behind schedule due to inclement weather. They immediately boarded the flight for Little Rock, which was delayed as well. Both pilots were near the end of their duty time limitation.

Investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ultimately determined the probable cause of the crash was mistakes in judgment and process made by the flight crew as a result of impaired performance due to fatigue and stress. One mistake the flight crew made was failing to deploy the plane’s spoilers, which can slow the aircraft. The NTSB stated that when fatigued, people are more likely to continue trying to implement solutions that have already failed instead of trying new approaches that might be more successful. In addition, the NTSB recommended changes to the landing checklist to make sure pilots double-checked each step in the process. The failure to discontinue the landing when it was apparent there were severe thunderstorms in progress was also listed as a major cause of the accident.

Slack Davis Sanger represented five surviving passengers and the family of two deceased passengers. Several of our clients who survived were diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from their traumatic experience. Mike Slack was appointed by the late Honorable Henry Woods to the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee in the ensuing federal Multi-district Litigation (MDL)1308. In addition, among the passenger claims, certain claims were governed by state law and other passenger claims were controlled by the Montreal Convention. That is because some of the passengers were on domestic flights within the United States, and other passengers held tickets for international flights. The litigation underscored how very different legal standards for compensation of passengers’ damages can occur in the same airline crash.

Judge Woods segregated the domestic and international cases and began settling cases for damages trials. Nearly all the cases settled, but a few were tried against American Airlines on damages. Mike Slack was trial counsel in Manus v. American Airlines, with Little Rock attorney Jim Jackson, in which the jury awarded significant damages to a mother and 2 small children who survived the crash but sustained serious effects from PTSD. The Manus verdict was affirmed on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. Manus v. American Airlines, Inc., 314 F. 3d 968 (8th Cir. 2003). Manus remains one of the largest verdicts ever awarded to airline passengers for PTSD.

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