Surgeon Sues After Getting Pinky Finger Caught in Airline Tray Table

Last year a man sued American Airlines because, he says, turbulence gave him a brain injury. He likened it to shaken baby syndrome. He refused medical care at the time, but claims American should have forced him to accept medical intervention. Oh, and his wife sued because of her emotional distress over her husband’s injury.

Now a brain surgeon is suing Austrian Airlines after jamming his pinky finger in his seat’s tray table.

The doctor was flying Brisbane – Bangkok and then continued on Austrian to Vienna and Manchester in business class last year. On the Bangkok – Vienna leg, “the cabin crew had folded out the horizontal table tray from his armrest before serving an in-flight meal during the Bangkok to Vienna leg of his trip.” They “did not return” to put his tray table away, he couldn’t recline his seat, so he tried to do it himself… unsuccessfully.

Dr Walker says he attempted to retract the armrest himself, at which point it “malfunctioned” and “snapped back suddenly without warning”.

“The fifth finger on the right hand of the Applicant became jammed in between two of the parts of the horizontal tray-table resulting in severe pain and injury,” the statement of claim says.

Copyright: zhukovsky / 123RF Stock Photo

Anyone who has used an Austrian Airlines business class tray table knows it can be confusing, even for a smart neurosurgeon, although there are far more complex tray tables out there (I find the most frustrating to be the table on the reconfigured American Airlines Boeing 767s).

The doc says he was in so much pain he lost consciousness. He says he “suffered a fracture and “intra-articular extension” to the finger, as well as soft tissue injuries and trauma to the nail bed.”

The lawsuit doesn’t specify an amount of damanges requested. Under the Montreal Convention it seems he’d be limited to 100,000 Special Drawing Rights (XDR) equivalent to about US$113,000 under a strict liability theory. Beyond that there would have to be negligence on the part of the airline — which seems difficult to prove since people do use the tray table without injury every day even if it’s confusing, since the flight attendant was available to help open it and since there’s no claim that the flight attendant refused to close it for him, just that there wasn’t a proactive offer as quickly as the doctor wanted to recline his seat. I offer no legal opinion here on the likelihood of his prevailing though presumably he’s simply seeking a nuisance settlement.

The doctor should, perhaps, meet the woman suing Singapore Airlines over her arthritis which she claims developed because that airline spilled a drink on her husband.

My best guess is that they watched the old Saturday Night Live commercial for the law firm of Green & Fazio too many times.

Let’s be frank, what does a ‘No Trespassing’ sign mean when you’re as drunk as I was?

They can have their $2.6 million back, but who’ll give me back my tooth?

…Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering, maybe I should have sued?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I had heart attack on a SwissAir flight. I told the Flight Attendant not to close the door and to let me to get off the airplane. But she would not let me off the aircraft and told me that I was a nervous flyer and I told her that was not the case.
    Do I have a case against Swiss Air? This happened in 2011. Thank you,

  2. A surgeon’s whole livelihood depends on his hands… as well as the safety of the patient’s he performance surgery on. I certainly would be very worried about someone operating on my brain without 100% function of his greatest tool.. this hands. It actually is no small matter. And given the extent of the “reported” injury.. it could be a career ender. Likening this to other suits that appear (but we don’t know) are frivolous…. really is inappropriate.

  3. “I certainly would be very worried about someone operating on my brain without 100% function of his greatest tool.”

    TBH I would be more worried about someone who is unable to operate an airplane tray table or operate on my brain…

  4. TBH I would be more worried about someone who is unable to operate an airplane tray table TO operate on my brain… (me and my fat finger =_=)

  5. Smart people carry income protection insurance to mitigate the risk of not being able to work for a medical reason. Such insurance may pay out up to 80% of salaried income after a predetermined period (after say 4 weeks or 2 months etc) depending on choice of the policy holder and the premium paid and willingness to submit to medical.

    IMHO it would the responsibility of the surgeon to have taken out such insurance!

    In fact, the surgeon is highly likely to have such insurance by default – in Australia we have compulsory superannuation (all employers in Australia legally must pay 9.5% of salary into a nominated superannuation fund) and such income protection insurance is usually an OPT OUT feature enabling folk to pay the premiums from their superannuation contributions. Of course, folk may also opt out and purchase a policy of choice independent of their superannuation fund.

    In this case, the crew had shown willingness to operate the tray table for the passenger (by opening the tray in the first place) – yet the surgeon chose to operate the tray table on his own without help to close it.

    In terms of risk analysis:

    That millions of people per day operate tray airline tray table without injury proves that the probability of such an event is extremely low.

    The impact in this case is potentially high (loss of income from a high paid job) yet, as proposed above, mitigating for such impact is the responsibility of the passenger (insurance that the vast majority of Australians would be carrying by default).

    In any case, you would expect a surgeon to be endowed with dexterity, intelligence, and a mindfulness when engaging in a physical action – all of great benefit in operating such a complex physical entity as an airline tray table without totally mucking up the process!

    Probably, not the first time the surgeon had been on an aircraft…

  6. One tends not to use one’s little finger much carrying out brain surgery. Poseable thumb is far more important.

  7. It doesn’t seem like an outrageous lawsuit to me. It’s all how you look at things. If the headline was “malfunctioning tray table breaks surgeon’s finger…” maybe you’d feel differently. Personally I don’t think it should be possible to break your finger trying to retract a tray, and there must be a design flaw or a malfunction with the tray on that seat for it to happen. Yes he should have short term disability insurance, yes, he’s a neurosurgeon, yes the flight attendant might have done it if he’d called. . But maybe he isn’t such a prima donna and just didn’t want to call a flight attendant to put away a tray table. ..And then let’s imagine that things happened as he described and while trying to put away it away the thing unexpectedly snapped back and broke his finger. Shouldn’t happen to anybody. And I think posting it along with a story about a lady claiming arthritis due to her husband’s spilled drink is kind of mean. Geez, his finger was broken!

  8. He couldn’t recline his seat, so he tried to do it himself… unsuccessfully. More like he does not have any brain cells himself. If a $30,000 a year waitress can operate it why cant a college graduate who goes on to perform surgery with small tools?

    If it was really hurting him he would not have continued his journey but would have stayed in Vienna!

    Bet you that finger can still work for other job functions.

  9. This is how you can differentiate between specialists.
    An elevator door closes, and to stop the door from completely closing, the Internist sticks his hand in, the general surgeon sticks his foot in, and the orthopod sticks his head in.
    The surgeon should have stuck his foot to save his pinky.

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