Longform

Crash Landing

Page 5 of 6

Axelrad, now 38 years old, barely resembles the vibrant woman displayed in photos taken prior to the flight. Rather, she has the overweight and rumpled appearance of what she says she has become: a virtual shut-in. And Axelrad, who lives in a small Boca Raton apartment, blames it all on the injury to her right knee. Indeed, her right leg is marred with bulges and scars from her 1996 surgery. It's also darker than her left leg and is slightly swollen, cool to the touch. These anomalies are the effects of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, a painful condition brought on by the trauma of the injury, she says.

When she recounts her past, it seems that she has two distinct lives: one before Flight 1145 and one after. In the previous life, she had a long-term relationship with LaPorte, a mechanical engineer. She had a good job working at a medical center and, even with her knee problems, could enjoy her passions: riding motorcycles and water-skiing.

The fall to the runway not only ruined the quality of her life but the stress and pain that resulted from it helped to end her relationship with LaPorte, both she and her ex-fiancé say. She complains that she can't even walk the length of a mall anymore without terrible pain. Her addiction to prescription drugs, she says, led to two DUI arrests during the past two years (both involving pain medications rather than alcohol), and she's currently in a custody battle over her son, who's now 13 years old.

Ironically, Delta attorney O'Hara used all of the problems Axelrad blames on Delta against her in court. O. Edgar Williams Jr., a retired judge who presided over the trial in place of Cocalis, allowed the Delta attorney to recount ugly details about her first DUI arrest, which occurred in Delray Beach on May 27, 2000. Axelrad scuffled with a police officer after the stop and bit his arm. She claims she was the victim of police brutality but ultimately pleaded guilty to careless driving and assault on a police officer.

O'Hara also intimated to the jury that Axelrad was a drug addict before Flight 1145 ever left the ground. In fact, Axelrad had been prescribed the pain reliever Darvocet for her arthritis but didn't fill the prescription for five months before the flight, Hager says.

"It was terrible, and the way they shot her down in the courtroom was a disgrace," says LaPorte, who testified on Axelrad's behalf. "How does any of that affect the incident that happened years ago? This is the way the system is, and it stinks. That girl lost her life from this."

But even as Axelrad's flaws were laid bare, Delta emerged almost unscathed. O'Hara announced to the jury that "everybody got off that aircraft in an appropriate manner," despite the fact that at least five passengers claimed to have been injured. Sally Barker was set to be Axelrad's star witness -- proof that she wasn't some lone nut case. O'Hara, however, was able to persuade Judge Williams to prohibit Barker from telling the jury about her injuries or her lawsuit. Williams agreed with the defense that Barker's story was irrelevant since she was allegedly pushed down the chute by a different flight attendant than was Axelrad. "I basically was able to say, "I'm Sally Barker, and I was on that flight,' and that's all," Barker says. "They would not let me tell the truth. I could not tell them that I was hurt."

Williams also kept the jury from hearing the tape recording of the bomb threat or any details about the 23-minute time lapse. And Hager was prevented from submitting to the jurors Harcourt's report contradicting chief flight attendant Gardiner's claim that he didn't know about the bomb threat.

Axelrad and her attorney complain that the Delta cover-up was essentially kept from the jury. "They didn't get to hear the tape, they didn't get to hear how many other people were hurt, they didn't get to see anything good about me," Axelrad says. "They didn't get to hear about any of it."

The jury took less than an hour, on November 8, to rule against Axelrad. But she still has a chance. Hager, during the trial, filed a motion requesting that the judge punish Delta for concealing facts during discovery in what the plaintiff alleges amounted to fraud. "Delta intentionally and contumaciously refused to provide ordered discovery, and improperly and unlawfully concealed critical information from the plaintiff," Hager alleged in the detailed, 71-page motion.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman