What Patty Bruce wanted more than just about anything was confirmation that her husband John, killed nearly 4½ years ago unloading cargo for the U.S. military in Kuwait, was not to blame for his own death.
Last week, a Cook County jury gave it to her. Jurors awarded Bruce's family $6.65 million in its wrongful-death suit against military contractor CAV International Inc., which operated the Al-Mubarak Air Base in Kuwait City where the longtime United Airlines employee was on special assignment.
The Arlington Heights resident suffered fatal injuries about 4:20 a.m. Oct. 9, 2009, after falling from a mobile conveyor belt loader operated by a CAV employee. Witnesses said the employee had his back turned and was laughing and joking with military personnel when he lowered the handrail, causing the 64-year-old Bruce -- a safety conscious man and "go-to guy" whose favorite saying was "proper planning prevents poor performance" -- to fall to the tarmac some 20 feet below, said Bruce family attorney Timothy J. Cavanagh.
"John had no chance," Cavanagh said.
And his family had no answers.
While United Airlines shared with Cavanagh findings from its investigation, neither the U.S. military nor CAV International responded to the family's request for information.
"I wanted to get the Bruce family the answers they deserved," Cavanagh said.
Citing a lack of jurisdiction, CAV International refused to turn over any information, according to the original complaint. The company argued that the Bruce family had no standing for a wrongful-death suit because Kuwait has no such laws, even though Bruce was a U.S. citizen working for a U.S. company at the time of the accident.
"CAV fought us at every turn," he said. "Fortunately, we live in a country where we have laws to get access to what we needed."
The company also claimed the family had no right to sue in Illinois. Cavanagh argued successfully that CAV International should be subject to Illinois' liability laws since it has "earned tens of millions of dollars negotiating government contracts" here.
"As our society becomes more global in nature, the rules of law still apply," he said. When a U.S. company makes a mistake and harms an American, they're held accountable in a U.S. court."
CAV International and its parent company, Ranger International Services, did not respond to requests for comment. Cavanagh said he is uncertain whether they will appeal the judgment.
A native of Scotland and a naturalized U.S. citizen, John Bruce left behind Patty, a science teacher at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, and sons Michael and JP. Not much for Hallmark holidays, the 6'2", 250-pound Bruce was funny and romantic, often buying his wife of 29 years candy and flowers just because. Pictures of her husband, their family and friends surround Patty Bruce still. His voice is still the one callers hear on their answering machine.
After John's death, Patty asked her sons every day to tell her a story about their dad, reasoning if they remembered something she didn't, it would be like adding a new memory to her collection. And while she still grieves, she says she has forgiven the CAV employee whose mistake cost her husband his life.
"He's a young kid," she said. "The mother in me feels sorry for him, that he has to live with our faces, and now we have a picture of his face."
She praises United Airlines for their efforts in the wake of the accident, flying their family to Kuwait and flying Bruce home to Northwest Community Hospital.
His family was struck by how much he was loved.
"We were surprised at how big of a rock star he was," said JP Bruce.
Mourners packed the St. Viator gymnasium for the memorial service. Not long after, Bruce's United Airlines co-workers renamed the company cafeteria at O'Hare International Airport in his honor.
Patty Bruce credits Cavanagh and his firm for their dedication to helping her family get justice for John.
"That kept us going," she said.
CAV International has never apologized, Cavanagh said. Had it done so, the matter might have been settled without a lawsuit, Patty Bruce said. "John was always about doing the right thing," she said. "He would like that justice was served."