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Trial - Flight Safety

A civil aviation court case is going on in London at the moment, which raises several points of law which are believed to be new to most lawyers.

For instance, is an act, which takes place on a British plane over American territory, subject to British or American law? Do the instructions given on the safety films shown on planes constitute an order or a recommendation? Should a law-suit resulting from an incident on a low-cost, no frills airline be handled by low cost, no frills lawyers? And ...

But perhaps it will make things clearer if I bring you an extract from the court case itself. We join the proceedings just as the plaintiff, Mrs Garland, takes the stand.

Counsel: You are Mrs Nancy Garland?
Garland: I certainly am.
Counsel: And on July 15th last year you were flying from America to London on a long haul flight?
Garland: You are a very well informed young man.
Counsel: Thank you. Now, at the beginning of this flight they showed you a flight safety film, I believe?
Garland: They did.
Counsel: This is quite normal, I believe.
Garland: It didn't use to be. In the old days the captain took the trouble to address us personally over his microphone and tell us all about the safety procedures, while the cabin crew did their bit of mime, pointing to emergency exits and demonstrating buckles etc. I rather liked that.
Counsel: But nobody ever paid any attention to it.
Garland: I did. Now, alas, all that the captain ever tells us is his Christian name, which is of no interest to me, and they have these ridiculous little films with simpering actors and actresses pretending to be passengers and stewardesses.
Counsel: Which nobody ever pays attention to.
Garland: I do.
Counsel: I gather that on this occasion you paid special attention to one bit of the film.
Garland: Yes. I was intrigued by the demonstration of the safety position for an emergency landing, when you have to put your head right down and put your hands over your head.
Counsel: Why was this intriguing?
Garland: Because although the actress in the film had plenty of room to do this, perhaps because the scene was shot in a studio setting, I did not think that I in my seat had anything like the same amount of room, and that it might be very difficult to put my head down in the space available.
Counsel: So what did you do?
Garland: I thought it was my duty as a passenger to test this. So I bent down and put my head in the position recommended. It was exceedingly difficult, but just possible.
Counsel: And what happened then?
Garland: I got stuck.
Counsel: How stuck?
Garland: Very stuck. I could not get back up again. What I discovered was that the position recommended as the emergency landing position, which may be very sensible for all I know, cannot be effectively carried out in the space given to standard passengers.
Counsel: I see. And how long did you spend in this position with your head between your knees, stuck against the seat in front of you?
Garland: The rest of the flight.
Counsel: Which was how long?
Garland: 4,236 kilometres.
Counsel: That is a very precise figure.
Garland: I just happen to remember, before I attempted to simulate the emergency landing position, noticing on the little screen where they give statistics that the distance to destination was 4,236 kilometres. I have a very good memory for these things.
Counsel: I see. And how cold was it outside?
Garland: I beg your pardon?
Counsel: Among the other figures they normally give on the screen, along with the local time and height, is the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere. Do you remember what it was?
Garland: No. As I had no intention of going outside, the exterior temperature was of no interest to me. The length of the journey was of importance to me, as I had some work I wished to do.
Counsel: Which it was impossible to do with your head stuck between your knees?
Garland: Of course. That is why I am suing the airline. Because of their safety film, I was rendered incapable of doing some very vital work.
Counsel: And have there been any long term effects of this ordeal?
Garland: Yes. On the back of my neck I still have a criss-cross pattern left by the netting in which the in flight magazine and sick bag is contained. But that is not all ....

More of this trail-blazing trial some other time, I hope.

The Independent Thursday Feb 14 02