The Art of Persuasion

When the insurance company won’t cooperate, it’s the attorney’s job to step in and take the fight to the ground, and this rings especially true in the courtroom. But is it always wise to launch an attack at the first sign of opposition? In fact, sometimes this has the effect that our purpose gets lost in translation. It’s not always about being aggressive, but knowing just what approach works best for that particular situation, and sometimes, you catch more flies with honey.

It’s a well-known fact that a plaintiff can only recover for emotional damages under certain circumstances in Rhode Island. For instance, the Courts have found that in order to recover under the tort of intentional infliction of emotional suffering, the claimant has to have personally witnessed a relative’s grave injury, and consequently, suffered severe emotional distress that must be substantiated by a provider of mental health. This raises an interesting question about how much of a person’s emotional suffering, and under what circumstances a person can claim psychological damages deriving from another’s negligence. It’s a question that Donald Woodbine tackled in the case of a minor plaintiff who was maltreated upon landing in a foreign country. You may be familiar with an airline’s policy under which the staff assumes responsibility for a child’s well-being during transit (in this case, international transit) upon receipt of an “unaccompanied minor” fee and a signed authorization form. The airline promises to exercise great care for the minor’s safety, and the airline documents (passport and airline tickets) are then submitted to the staff-member responsible for the child. To what extent is the airline responsible for the child’s well-being while in international transit? What if the travel documents go “missing”?

This exact scenario unfolded while a child was on board an international flight. At some point, the child’s documents went missing, and were never found. Upon arrival, the child was detained by Customs and Immigration officials for fourteen hours in a room, during which time the child was denied food, water and medical attention, and relatives were forbidden from visiting. The father flew out to obtain his child’s release immediately upon hearing of the situation; hired a local attorney, and finally achieved his goal after a month-long wait to obtain a temporary passport that would enable their return to the U.S. (Senator Jack Reed’s office helped him to work with the U.S. Consulate, which finally issued the passport). He was not assisted in any way in his efforts to free his child from custody.

It goes without saying that this kind of situation can result in severe mental anguish and psychological trauma for a young child. Unfortunately, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. & 1441 (b) (Article 17 of The Montreal Convention concluded at Montreal, Canada, May 28, 1999), liability against an airline is limited to damages from physical injuries, and not emotional distress.

In spite of this, Donald was able to obtain a substantial settlement which came as a result of his emphasis on understanding and empathy. This goes to show that the best way to handle these types of situations isn’t necessarily with aggression; at least not until all avenues have reached a dead-end (which, yes, happens more often than most of us wish to think about—few people actually want to file a lawsuit). Here, however, no recovery was mandated, and yet Donald’s tactical negotiation skills coerced the airline to honor a reasonably quick settlement that negated the need for a trial at all. Storming into a situation, guns blazing, doesn’t always make for a smooth resolution.

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