Jurors reject claim that Osteen assaulted flight attendant
Defense lawyer says, ‘No way it happened’
By BRIAN ROGERS Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Jurors have rejected a Continental Airlines flight attendant’s lawsuit accusing Lakewood Church co-pastor Victoria Osteen of assault.
The decision this afternoon brought smiles from Osteen and her husband, church pastor Joel Osteen, but no strong reactions.
Brown and her sister also smiled and embraced after hearing the verdict. Judge Patricia Hancock had warned everyone in the courtroom against demonstrative reactions when the decision was announced.
Brown left the courtroom, still smiling, and declined to comment after hearing the verdict.
Jurors began deliberating about 11:30 a.m. today after hearing intense closing arguments from attorneys for Osteen and flight attendant Sharon Brown.
In closing arguments this morning, Brown’s lawyer called her a hero and accused Osteen of believing she is exempt from society’s rules.
Reginald McKamie asked jurors to award Brown at least $405,000 in damages.
But defense attorney Rusty Hardin, at times strongly objecting to McKamie’s remarks, reminded the jury in his closing arguments that even a witness called by McKamie had shocked both sides by testifying that no assault occurred.
“She said ‘There was no way it happened’,” Hardin said, quoting the testimony of airplane passenger Barbara Shedden.
The jury was asked to decide whether Brown was, indeed, assaulted and, if she was, whether she deserved damages for what she alleged was an assault aboard an airliner that was preparing to head to Vail, Colo., in December 2005.
Hardin maintained that Osteen never even touched Brown.
Closing arguments began about 9:30 a.m. in a packed courtroom, with the overflow audience using another courtroom wired for sound and video.
Jurors are expected to balance the weight and credibility of the evidence in determining whether Osteen committed assault and, if she did, how much money Brown should receive.
Brown has said Osteen grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her into a restroom door and elbowed her in the chest over a spilled liquid on her first-class seat aboard the Continental Airlines plane.
McKamie alleged that the Osteens believe there are “special rules for special people.”
“I think Sharon Brown is a hero,” McKamie said of Brown’s hardscrabble upbringing and factory work before rising in the ranks at Continental.
“There are others for whom the rules just don’t apply,” he said, pointing at the Osteens.
Loosely quoting biblical passages, McKamie said that “onto whomsoever much is given, much shall be required and of him they will ask the more.”
He asked jurors for $5,000 to $10,000 for medical damages, $200,000 for past mental anguish and $200,000 for future mental anguish.
“It’s not a big pain. It’s a medium pain,” McKamie said. “It’s not like losing a leg. It’s a medium pain.”
He said there were only three witnesses to the alleged assault: Brown, Osteen and flight attendant Maria Johnson, who agreed with Brown.
But Hardin said he brought Continental employees and other passengers who saw the confrontation and said there was no assault.
Halfway through McKamie’s arguments, he brought up another celebrity trial: the O.J. Simpson case. Like the victims’ families in that infamous case, McKamie said, Brown can get justice from the civil courts, not the criminal courts.
Osteen was not charged with a crime.
He said Brown was an underdog in the trial, with just him fighting for her dignity.
“There’s a literal army fighting Sharon Brown because she wants to hold Victoria Osteen accountable,” McKamie said, pointing to the bevy of attorneys and clerks surrounding the Osteens.
He told the jury that all Brown had wanted was an apology, but Osteen refused.
“(Osteen) wants special rules,” McKamie said. “She feels she’s a hammer and everybody else is little nails and she can hit the nails.
“This is about Sharon protecting her job,” he said. “This is about Victoria protecting her image, protecting her family business … and protecting her sense of entitlement.”
Sparks flew at one point as Hardin vigorously objected to McKamie’s arguments. In addition to incorrectly saying that a witness had told jurors that Osteen was violent, McKamie tried to read from a book that was not in evidence.
In his closing, Hardin urged jurors to end the “sacrilege” of a lawsuit.
“If 10 of you agree — I’m hoping all 12 of you will agree — but if just 10 of you answer ‘No’ to question number one, we’re out of here,” Hardin said.
He said Brown lives in an imaginary world all her own, “a world of imaginary slights, of perceived slights.”
“When she is contradicted, she flips out,” Hardin said.
He emphasized testimony that Brown accused another Continental employee, a gate agent, of hitting her during a plane boarding in 1995. The desk agent’s supervisor wrote a general letter of apology, but didn’t reprimand the desk agent or ask her to sign the letter.
“It’s a classic case of ‘What color is the sky in your world?'” Hardin told jurors. “It’s not the same color!”
Throughout his closing, Hardin also ridiculed an FAA report citing Osteen for interfering with the flight crew.
“Only God and the FAA know how to investigate an incident on an airplane without contacting one of the three flight attendants on the plane!” Hardin said.
He noted that Osteen originally was fined $5,000, but negotiated it down to $3,000 and paid it to put the matter behind her.
Hardin asked jurors to deliberate for as long as their conscience dictates, then return and “Tell Ms. Brown, `Whatever your problems are, Godspeed. We wish you luck, but you were not assaulted.”