A passenger on a Delta flight between Minneapolis and Oregon states that he suffered permanent partial hearing loss as a result of an unusually loud noise occurring throughout the flight.   The passenger’s lawsuit alleges that he brought the noise to the attention of the flight attendants, but that they declined to reseat him.  He also asked that the plane be diverted to an airport based upon his discomfort, but that request was also denied.

The elevated noise caused him to lose hearing in one ear temporarily, but he suffers permanent hearing loss in both ears now, and suffers from debilitating painful tinnitus.   As someone who has suffered temporary hearing loss after flights, I can certainly see how this could happen.

However, the reporting of this lawsuit contributes to the myth of the litigious society.  The headline on USA Today reads, “Man sues Delta for $2 million, says loud flight hurt hearing.”   This is irresponsible reporting.

First, although people often ask for ridiculous sums of money in their complaint, the legal system is designed to pare the ultimate award down to a reasonable number that more closely approximates real damages.  This lawsuit is venued in Oregon, but had it been filed in Minnesota, the odds of our conservative juries awarding that kind of money are extremely small.   Most jurisdictions permit you to sue someone for “an amount that exceeds” whatever the jurisdictional limit is, without specifying your exact damages.  The only reason for listing a ridiculous sum of money in a complaint is to attract media attention.

Second, while it might be an interesting fact that this man is suing for $2,000,000, what is truly relevant is how much the man is awarded, if anything.   And that is the portion of litigation that you often don’t hear about.  If he settles, he may sign a non-disclosure agreement.   Or, it might just not make the news.  The vast majority of them don’t.

If he loses, we’ll hear about it, but it will just feed the myth of the litigious society.  “Of course he lost!  He shouldn’t have been allowed to try!”  Never mind that the papers almost never report the reason the guy lost.   And sometimes, the loss has nothing to do with the validity of the guy’s overall complaint.

Third, how much is a man’s hearing worth?  Maybe it isn’t worth $2,000,000, although I think crippling tinnitus plus permanent hearing loss might be worth a significant amount.  If the guy makes his living as an audiologist or a musician, he may be permanently prevented from earning his living, requiring retraining.   That’s why we experts and juries and trials.

Finally, the reporting minimizes the potential cause of the man’s hearing  loss.  Let’s face it, all planes are loud.  I usually have a hard time hearing after I land.  The type of “loud” that would cause permanent hearing loss is in another class.  If the man’s complaint is true (and I make no judgment about that), the noise presented a serious risk of injury, he informed the flight attendant of the noise, and they did nothing about it (they didn’t even offer him earplugs), causing him injury.  That’s the definition of negligence.

I’m going to wait until we find out what happens to the suit in the legal system to comment on the merits of the suit.   I wish USA Today would do so, as well.

More information about this suit is at OregonLive.com