A huge punitive verdict against Holland America Line stems from multiple incidents where passengers have been struck — and some injured — by sliding-glass doors.
A U.S. District Court jury in Seattle has awarded a whopping $21.5 million in damages to an Illinois businessman who suffered a minor brain injury when he was struck in the head by a sliding-glass door on the Holland America cruise line’s Pacific fleet flagship, the M/S Amsterdam.
The verdict is one of the largest in recent memory out of federal court here and included $16.5 million in punitive damages against Holland America.
Attorneys for James R. Hausman produced evidence at trial that dozens of other passengers had been injured in similar sliding-door incidents across the Holland America fleet due to faulty sensor settings, according to court documents and Hausman’s attorney, Rick Friedman.
In addition to the punitive damages, Hausman, 61, was awarded $5 million for past and future pain, suffering and emotional distress. According to Friedman, Hausman suffers memory loss, vertigo and seizures as a result of the injury but was able to complete the 280-day world cruise.
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Holland America Line (HAL), which is headquartered in Seattle, has filed documents asking the court to reduce the judgment as excessive, and has said it will appeal the verdict.
“Holland America Line is committed to the safety and security of our guests and take all incidents very seriously,” the cruise line said in a statement. “We have no comment regarding the specifics of this lawsuit.”
The unanimous verdict, recently reached by eight jurors, came after a nine-day trial, according to the court docket.
Hausman, a gold and precious-metals retailer with a shop in Springfield, Ill., was traveling on the Amsterdam with his wife, daughter and a tutor on the beginning leg of the world cruise. The ship had left Seattle in September 2011 and had traveled to Russia, China, several Southeast Asian countries and the South Pacific.
On Nov. 26 the ship was in open water, approaching Honolulu, when Hausman and his wife left the ship’s penthouse to walk to a pool. Surveillance video shows him following several crew members through a pair of sliding-glass doors when the doors shut, striking him in the face and the side of the head. Holland America, in its court briefings, insists Hausman walked into the closing doors.
Hausman visited the ship’s doctor, who initially stated in reports that the man had suffered a facial contusion and a chipped tooth. Later, the doctor diagnosed a concussion and “post-concussion” syndrome.
Friedman, however, said later neurological tests showed Hausman had suffered a “minor traumatic brain injury” that left him prone to vertigo and has caused him to suffer seizures in which he “spaces out for a few seconds to a few minutes,” and that he frequently loses track of what he was saying and repeats himself. Those problems continue today, the lawyer said.
“He didn’t get better,” Friedman said. “And he did not try to hide this.” Hausman returned home at the end of November 2011 for the Christmas holiday, then returned to a Holland America ship to continue on his world cruise with his family.
“He still has trouble with things that would have been simple before,” Friedman said. Hausman has since sold his business. “He was impacted in a very serious way.”
According to court documents, Holland America insisted the incident was anomalous. However, Friedman said the company “suppressed” documentation for as many as 34 other sliding-door incidents throughout its fleet going back three years, including two incidents where passengers broke their hips and another where one suffered a back injury.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who presided over the trial, allowed the jury to hear about 16 of those incidents she determined were relevant.
A key issue at trial was the sensitivity at which those doors were set to detect people approaching them and then open, and how soon they closed after no further movement was detected, according to court filings and Friedman.
Experts testified there was no reason a sliding door should ever hit someone — that it should be a “never event,” Friedman said. However, Hausman’s attorneys turned up incident after incident in which doors on HAL cruise ships closed and struck passengers and crew members, according to court documents.
Friedman said the cruise line had the motion sensors on the doors set to open and close faster than normal, presumably to save on air-conditioning, although HAL in its filings denied this.
As a result, the doors were set to open at the last moment and close within half a second after the sensors stopped detecting motion. Friedman said this was against the manufacturer’s recommendation and was criticized by industry experts called to testify in the case.
Moreover, he said, Holland America had been sued previously and had blamed the passengers for their injuries, just as it claimed Hausman walked into the door.
That, Friedman ventured, was a driving factor in the huge punitive verdict.
In seeking punitive damages, Hausman argued that “the jury should get to decide whether HAL’s systematic acceptance and approval of automatic doors set to occasionally hit and injure passengers is wanton, willful, or outrageous.”