Did a Crying Baby Cause Jean Barnard's Hearing Loss?

Woman claims a child's scream made her lose her hearing.

July 27, 2010 — -- A screaming child's high-pitched squeals echoing through an airplane cabin was more than just an annoyance for one Florida woman.

A child's shriek was so loud on one Qantas Airlines flight that passenger Jean Barnard, 67, claimed that it left her partially deaf. She later filed a civil complaint against the airline for the physical and emotional damage she sustained from the incident.

Barnard's suit eventually led to a settlement, the details of which have been sealed and remain confidential.

In her deposition to a Los Angeles district court last April, Barnard claimed that she was boarding a flight in Alice Springs, Australia, in January 2009 when she said a child "let loose a shriek" about "four inches" from her face.

"Blood instantaneously shot into the back of my head," said Barnard, who described the pain as "excruciating."

Barnard was removed from the airplane before takeoff and treated at a nearby hospital. According to the complaint she filed, the child's scream caused her "significant personal injuries," including sudden "sensio-neural hearing loss" and was unable to work.

In a response to Barnard's complaint, Qantas Airlines argued in court that the airline was not responsible for a "small child's random, impulsive scream" as it is not an "unexpected or unusual event" and is not "related in any way to the operation of the aircraft."

The airline also claimed that Barnard suffered the injuries dues to her own "internal infirmities" and not from the child's scream at all, suggesting that Barnard had hearing problems prior to the incident aboard the aircraft.

Barnard and Qantas reached a confidential agreement out of court this month, and a lawyer for Barnard would not discuss the case further.

Qantas also declined to comment on the incident.

As for the danger a screaming child could pose to a fellow passenger, medical professionals told ABCNews.com that the type of trauma Barnard described is extremely uncommon.

Woman Says Screaming Baby on Qantas Flight Damaged Her Hearing

Sensio-neural hearing loss, the type of condition Barnard claimed in court that the child's scream caused her, is most commonly known as the type of hearing loss individuals suffer from as they get older, according to Dr. John Weigand, an audiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"In some rare cases, a baby's scream could cause maybe some hearing loss, but it would be very unlikely," said Weigand, who has not treated Barnard.

Weigand said that while a baby crying on an airplane might be extremely irritating, the chance that the sound is actually dangerous is slim.

"[Bleeding ears] would be an extremely unlikely type of injury to be caused by a crying child," said Weigand. "It's an injury that is more likely for someone who sustained a blast injury in battle. "

Weigand added that humans have only ever been known to produce sound loud enough to harm another human over an extended period of time. Research has shown, he said, that women can sometimes suffer from hearing loss after sleeping with loud-snoring husbands for years.

"But a single scream or even a baby crying for a couple of hours is very unlikely to cause significant damage," said Weigand.

And, according to evidence shown to the court by Qantas Airlines, Barnard had recently received new hearing aids in the month prior to her flight with the screaming baby. Barnard denied the hearing aids during her deposition, and her lawyer declined to comment on his client's medical history, but one audiologist told ABCNews.com that if she did in fact have hearing aids on, the sound could have been amplified, making it that much more painful.

"Certainly a child's scream right in the ear can be very loud," said Anne Oyler, an audiologist at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Maryland, who has also not treated Barnard.

"Generally, a baby's cry can be about 130 decibels," she said. "That can be startling and painful -- especially if you are already hypersensitive to loud sounds due to an existing hearing loss.

"It may even result in a temporary change in the hearing, but we would expect the hearing to come back over time."