WW24 January 4, 2017: Myth 1: Why Try, Survivors Will Just File a Lawsuit Anyway!

Wednesday Wisdom Series: Myth 1: Why Try, Survivors Will Just File a Lawsuit Anyway!
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Here is your bi-monthly Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance
Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation. 

Myth 1: Why Try, Survivors Will Just File a Lawsuit

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“I told the plaintiff attorney that while I need a settlement to help me with
the bills that built up when I was unable to work, I don’t want to discuss
punitive damages as I am afraid it might hurt the airline and the jobs of
employees who assisted me.”

                                                            – A woman whose son died in an airline
                                                            disaster along with over two hundred others

In the late 1980s, little was known about how company representatives should
approach survivors of traumatic loss. When the author explained her desire to
conduct research to determine the role employees might play in helping survivors
where a fatal air disaster had occurred, the academic institution discouraged her
due to a commonly held belief: that due to lawsuits, no one would participate in
the study. To compound the problem, many mental health professionals associated
with the potential research advised against it. They voiced concerns that due to
anger on the part of survivors, employees would not be well received, and might
cause greater harm.

Despite the lack of support, the research study was finally approved. The
groundbreaking interviews began, and more than the number of study participants
required by the university volunteered to participate. Primary survivors – crew
members and passengers who had survived accidents – as well as family survivors
whose loved ones had perished in one of six airline crashes were involved. 
Contrary to common opinion, several interviews revealed that uninjured passengers
were so grateful for their survival that they did not want a settlement – and even wrote
letters to airline management praising the pilots and flight attendants for saving their
lives. One woman, whose children died in a crash that she survived, reported that the
airline employees were the bridge between her and the outside world during the
time she was hospitalized. While she was recovering, the medical team cleared her
for short visits to the park in a wheel chair—but she had no one to facilitate such
outside activities as her family lived out of town. The employees stepped in and
transported her to the park and to church on Sundays.

The anecdotal information was pleasantly surprising, but what captured the attention
of the academic and clinical advisers was the statistical data. It clearly associated
positive perception of employees’ words and actions with significantly less symptoms
of five disorders associated with trauma as well as fewer cases of PTSD and Clinical
Depression. While many US airlines began establishing Care Teams, several did
not and there was also inconsistency in assistance provided. Advocacy by dedicated
survivors and families led to the 1996 passage of the Aviation Disaster Family
Assistance Act. That legislation, and the Foreign Air Carrier Act of 1997, were
enacted passed to help ensure consistency by airlines serving the United States.  

In addition to over 30 years of interviews supporting this approach to helping
survivors, plaintiff attorneys also support this model. Mitch Baumeister, of
Baumeister Samuels, a major aviation legal firm based in New York, NY, reports
that there is a marked difference in the settlement outcome between families
who are offered compassionate assistance by company employees and those
who are not. Understandably, people who are angry over lack of information
and who feel disconnected from the company express a desire to see the
employees punished and ‘want to bury the airline’, which is the opposite of
survivors who feel positive about interactions in the aftermath of a tragedy.

While this law does not apply to all industries or even airlines in other parts of
the world, the processes and procedures have become best practice. Interviews
with survivors of other types of tragedies reveal similar results in that people
respond positively to companies that take a proactive approach to serving them
during the dependency phase. 

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Regardless of the industry or location, leaders involved in emergency management
should make every attempt to establish plans that address needs that are known to
be virtually universal to primary and family survivors of traumatic loss. The core
elements of such a plan that can be tailored to any industry or organization are
found in the Federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters, specifically the
section beginning on page 11 that addresses Air Carrier Victim Support Tasks. The
document in its entirety also provides a useful view of the overall support process.

Providing basic information and offering support for practical needs will go a long
way in helping survivors and has a direct impact on company morale. Experience
has shown that most employees will do all possible to help their customers,
passengers, guests, and those they serve—despite myths that otherwise might
discourage them from applying their natural helping skills to a crisis.

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