Screaming child lands Qantas in court

Photo / Paul Estcourt
Photo / Paul Estcourt

It can be a traveller's great fear - sitting near a screaming child on a passenger plane.

American tourist Jean Barnard, who embarked on her dream holiday to Australia and New Zealand in January last year, alleges the trip became a nightmare when she boarded a Darwin-bound Qantas plane in Alice Springs, walked to her assigned seat and came face-to-face with a three-year-old boy across the aisle.

The boy allegedly leant back over his armrest toward Ms Barnard and let out a scream so severe that blood erupted from her ears, leaving her "stone cold deaf".

No other passengers were injured.

Ms Barnard was helped off the plane and taken to an Alice Springs hospital, ruining her trip that began in Brisbane and Cairns, and after Alice Springs and a visit to Uluru, was scheduled to take her to Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Sydney, Christchurch and Queenstown.

"The pain was so excruciating that I didn't even know I was deaf," Ms Barnard said, reliving the incident during a deposition for a civil lawsuit she filed against Qantas in the US District Court in Los Angeles.

Ms Barnard has been locked in a legal tussle with Qantas for more than a year, with the 67-year-old claiming she suffered severe and permanent injuries, including sudden sensio-neural hearing loss, from the child's scream and sought damages for physical and mental suffering, medical expenses and loss or impairment of earning capacity.

Her lawyer, Brian Lawler, argued Qantas was negligent because the plane's cabin and cockpit crew failed "to take all the necessary precautions to prevent the accident that resulted" in her "injury".

Qantas's US legal team vigorously fought the case, claiming there was evidence Ms Barnard had a hearing problem before she departed the US for Australia, and defended the flight staff and crew, telling the court: "Plaintiff's injuries, if any, were caused by the arbitrary and volitional act of a three-year-old child. Flight attendants cannot predict when children aboard an aircraft are about to scream. There is no evidence that the child was screaming in the terminal, or on board the aircraft prior to the particular scream which allegedly caused the damage."

Qantas referred to emails allegedly written by Ms Barnard to a travel companion prior to the Australian trip in which she admitted wearing hearing aids, and submitted a volatile email Ms Barnard allegedly wrote a day after the incident to the US travel agent who booked the trip.

"I guess we are simply fortunate that my eardrum was exploding and I was swallowing blood. Had it not been for that, I would have dragged that kid out of his mother's arms and stomped him to death. Then we would have an 'international incident'," Ms Barnard allegedly wrote.

The warring parties, however, announced last week to the judge handling the case that a truce had been reached and they "entered into a confidential settlement".

Qantas declined to say if the settlement included payment to Ms Barnard.

"There is a confidential settlement and we can't make any comment," Qantas's senior executive vice-president for The Americas, Wally Mariani, said.

Mr Lawler did not respond media requests for information.

In an email, Ms Barnard wrote: "I have signed a confidential release and settlement agreement with Qantas Airlines for the lawsuit about my having been rendered deaf on a Qantas airliner on January 16, 2009. As per the release, I can/will no longer communicate with you regarding this incident".

In correspondence before signing the agreement, Ms Barnard, a co-owner and senior partner of an international business consulting firm, wrote that "my life came to an end January 16, 2009".

"I have not been able to work since the 'incident'. Since I cannot carry my load, we have put the business on the market and are, for all practical purposes, out of business," she wrote in an email in May.

- AAP

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