Before You File That Lawsuit


Having just returned from serving at a women’s retreat in Canada, I am, once again, grateful for the gift of air travel. If it weren’t for commercial jets flying 500+ mph, I never could have spent the last twenty years flying out on a Thursday, teaching biblical peacemaking all weekend, and then flying home by midnight Sunday.

Even with all of its inconveniences, I have sincerely enjoyed most of the million+ miles I have spent in commercial air travel.

A few years ago, however, I had an in-flight experience that was. Well. Less than ideal.

An Accident While Traveling

It began as a completely normal air travel day. No weather problems. No delays. You can picture me just sitting there in my nice, elite-area, aisle seat, watching a video on my iPhone. (I have flown around 75,000+ air miles a year every year since 1997, so I have been a million-miler for quite awhile now. Thus, air travel is one of the few things I am confident at and competent in; unlike, say, cooking, which I still can’t do at all.)

Suddenly, without any warning, I felt a huge jolt and clonk to my head because a large, heavy, carry-on suitcase had dropped directly onto me when an overhead bin malfunctioned during our ascent. Honestly? It hurt, but I didn’t think I was seriously injured. Sure. I had an immediate, large egg-sized bump on my forehead and some pretty drastic scratches down my face. But I did not lose consciousness; I had no sharp pains down my neck or back. I was injured and it wasn’t pleasant, but I didn’t think it was necessary to take the lead flight attendant up on her urgent offer as she rushed to my side:

“We are SO sorry! The pilot said he will immediately turn the plane around and go back to [giant city] so that you can receive medical attention if you would like.”

I quickly thought about how many people were on that plane. (I know the Boeing 757 well.) Elderly people. Business people. Families with young children and babies. As I mentally calculated how inconvenienced they would all be (especially re: connections) and as I tried hard to “consider their interests” (Philippians 2), I replied:

“Thanks. But I don’t think that’s necessary. May I please just have a bag of ice?”

She quickly filled a little barf bag with ice from first class and brought it to me. I then just collapsed my (bumped, scratched) face into the bag of ice in my hands, rested on the tray table in front of me, and tried not to cry from the adrenaline of the experience. (I’m not much of a crier and I’m certainly not a crier-in-public person.)

But then. (Cue scary music.) Again, without any warning, the same overhead bin popped open and the same (giant! heavy!) suitcase crashed onto me again. This time, it grazed the back of my head and mostly landed on my right wrist and arm which (like my face) immediately started to bleed from the scratches and soon afterwards turned some nasty shades of bruising. Not fun! But again, not a broken bone. Just a minor injury. Unpleasant, but not all that serious. (Although it did leave a small, permanent scar on my right wrist, which I think of as my own little “Ebenezer” every time I see it.)

Again, the lead flight attendant rushed to my side and offered to have a “medical team” meet us at the [connecting big city]. Again, I didn’t think that was necessary, but I did ask for some towels/bandaids. And that time? I did cry. No sobbing or sounds, just hot, frightened tears rolling down my cheeks as the flight crew (finally!) emptied the obviously defective overhead storage bin so that this would not be a triple-play kind of injure-the-passenger-situation.

But now my legal brain started to kick into gear. Yes. You can take the lawyer out of Illinois and plop her into Montana, but you can’t ever really remove from her brain three years of law school and all of the studying it took to pass the Bar Exam. And as I sat there, reviewing the facts of what had just happened, I was quite sure this was a strong (if not slam-dunk) case of prima facie negligence on behalf of the airline. (Equivalent to being rear-ended in an automobile accident.) There’s just no defense to that bin popping open twice (and the flight crew not adjusting bags or emptying the bin until after the second injury). Plus, I did not have anything in the overhead bin, so there was absolutely no way I was contributorily negligent in the situation.

I knew what I would have to do to prevail in the courts:

  • Get the names and contact information for the people sitting near me to make it easier to depose them (they were all clearly “on my side,” as it were, because they could not believethis had happened to me; even seasoned frequent-flyers and [name of airline] crew members were telling me “You HAVE TO sue!”);
  • Accept the offer of having a medical team meet me at the connecting city so that my injuries could be formally documented;
  • At the stroke of 8:00AM the next morning, hire a personal injury lawyer; and
  • Spend countless hours of the next year with my lawyer preparing for the fight, in depositions and settlement negotiations, or (if the airline was stubborn for some unimaginable reason), hours and hours for multiple years preparing for and finally executing the trial.

I would probably win. The lawyer would make a good profit. And our family (which could really use the money for basic needs and future expenses) would enjoy a substantial in-flow of cash.

But I also knew:

  • Litigation would take a tremendous amount of time away from my service to my husband, young children, church, and community;
  • If I sued, I would have a strained relationship with one of my favorite airlines. (I bake cookies for my local Billings crew!);
  • I would not be following wise, biblical counsel to “settle matters quickly” re: going to court (Matthew 5:25);
  • I would be following the litigiousnature of our society which I despise (remember when kids used to get bruises and cuts on the playground and find them all to be badges of super-fun-honor? not reasons to SUE and then PAD with protective gear every schoolyard playground?);
  • I would be violating the core biblical peacemaking principles to which I have dedicated my professional life as a professional Christian conciliator(and which were the reason my husband and I left our careers in Chicago to move to Billings, Montana back in 1999). See also John 17:20-23 & 1 John & Ephesians 4 & 1 Corinthians 6. Man. Persuasive stuff.

A Decision Not to Pursue Litigation

As my tears subsided and my barf-bag-of-ice melted against my scraped and sore body, I pretty much re-read in my mind Appendix D in Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker (“When Is It Right To Go To Court?”) and the Biblical Conflict Resolution” Appendix of the PCA’s Book of Church Order. I am not proud of the fact that I wavered a bit in this moment. There was such a draw to imagining a world in which we had a little financial margin! But ultimately, it was clear what I had to do:

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.” –Abraham Lincoln

The next morning, when the Vice-President of the airline’s insurance carrier called me, I violated every mantra of legal negotiation and just told him the truth: I was a Christian and a peacemaker and I had no intention of suing the airline, as long as I was treated fairly and justly. I told him honestly what happened (on the phone and in writing) and, after a few short weeks, I was offered a fair settlement. The dollar amount was just enough to cover my expenses for liveblogging a Gospel Coalition conference, and I was thrilled.

No, I wasn’t able to provide funds for my children to have a nice, secure college savings account waiting for them. And yes, and my husband still drives a vehicle with 200,000+ miles on it. But I have something are far greater worth than these financial benefits could ever: I have a clear conscience.

I know that I did not deceive, manipulate, or warp these minor injuries into major financial benefits. I did not exaggerate my injuries. I violated neither the spirit nor the letter of the law. And because I did not violate my conscience, convictions, or integrity for money, I have the life-giving benefit of not being burdened by deserved guilt and shame.

If you are ever in a situation that may lead to litigation, I do so hope that you will first prayerfully study the Biblical Conflict Resolution” Appendix of the PCA’s Book of Church Order, and Appendix D in Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker (“When Is It Right To Go To Court?

And I hope that you will never have a heavy suitcase fall down on your head! (Twice!)

Blessings and Joy,
Tara B.

Please don’t think that I believe all litigation is inappropriate. That simply is not the case. As I discuss in many of my writings on child sexual abuse in the church and sexual trauma in general, I know that in some situations, justice can be grace. It’s just that in this particular fact pattern, no one was intentionally doing me harm. I was injured. A little bit. Absolutely. But it was a genuine accident, not an intentional, malicious action.

About the Author:

Tara Barthel

Tara applied her law degree and MBA as the first female senior staff member at Peacemaker Ministries, and then was (happily!) surprised to be home, later in life, serving her husband, Fred, and their two daughters. When her children were young, Tara published her first video series, “Living the Gospel in Relationships,” and coauthored two books: Peacemaking Women and Redeeming Church Conflicts. Currently, Tara travels extensively to serve at events on topics related to anxiety, disordered affections, teaching logic to children, writing, and relationships. In addition to mediation and publication duties, Tara is also currently enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary where she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion.


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