The wife of evangelical pastor Joel Osteen got physical when her demands that a small spill on her seat be cleaned up were not immediately met, a flight attendant testified Thursday at a civil trial over the incident.
Continental Airlines flight attendant Maria Johnson testified that Victoria Osteen grew increasingly agitated and pushed her co-worker Sharon Brown, though the flight attendants had remained professional and reassured her a crew had been called to clean the spill, which was about the size of a 50-cent piece.
"She was demanding that attention be given to her immediately," Johnson said. She added that Victoria Osteen kept saying: "This is ridiculous. I'm a first-class passenger."
Brown is suing Victoria Osteen, alleging that she threw her against a bathroom door and elbowed her in the breast before the start of a 2005 flight to Vail, Colo.
Johnson confirmed Brown's claims that Victoria Osteen became so upset she tried to get into the cockpit and had to be physically restrained.
"She took Sharon by the shoulders and pushed her out of the way. Sharon stumbled," Johnson testified.
Rusty Hardin, Victoria Osteen's attorney, said the lawsuit is simply a money grab.
"This is nothing more than an attempted extortion," Hardin told jurors during opening statements in the trial in which he said his client did nothing wrong. While questioning Johnson, Hardin suggested that she and Brown might have overreacted or that Johnson might not have remembered the confrontation correctly.
Lawyer condemns claims
Just before her testimony concluded, Johnson suggested race might have played a role because of remarks Victoria Osteen made about wanting to deal only with Johnson, who is white, and not with Brown or another flight attendant on the plane, who are black.
Hardin condemned Johnson's claim and pointed out the racial diversity of the congregation at Lakewood Church, of which Victoria Osteen is co-pastor. The Houston church is a converted basketball arena where about 42,000 people flock each week for services where her husband preaches.
Joel Osteen, who was by his wife's side in court Thursday, has written books that have been sold around the globe, and his weekly television address is broadcast nationally and internationally.
Brown's attorney, Reginald McKamie, told jurors during his opening statement that his client was simply doing her job.
"Sharon was attacked by someone in the community who supposedly represents a higher degree of human decency," he said.
Brown's suit claims the flight attendants asked to have Victoria Osteen removed from the plane. Hardin told jurors Victoria Osteen and her family left voluntarily. The incident delayed the flight about 2 1/2 hours.
Hardin admitted that Victoria Osteen can be a "very excitable and expressive person," but that she was never out of control.
"Victoria Osteen never attacked her, never tried to get in the cockpit," Hardin said. "The aggressor and the person who was out of control, who flipped out, was Ms. Brown."
The Osteens were both expected to testify during the trial.
Apology, damages sought
Brown wants an apology and punitive damages amounting to 10 percent of Victoria Osteen's net worth as part of her suit.
"They will say this is about money. But that is the only remedy a jury can offer," McKamie said.
McKamie said Brown, who had undergone reconstructive surgery before the incident on her breasts due to illness, was injured when she was hit on her chest.
Her psychiatrist, Shayna Lee, testified that Brown has suffered depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the incident. She also felt disrespected in her role as a leader and as a black woman, and had her faith affected, Lee said.
Brown is also suing Victoria Osteen for medical expenses for counseling.
But Hardin told jurors there is no evidence Brown sustained any injuries, including claims she now suffers from hemorrhoids.
The Federal Aviation Administration fined Victoria Osteen $3,000 for interfering with a crew member.
Hardin told jurors Victoria Osteen paid the FAA fine not because she was guilty but as a way to conclude the matter and avoid any embarrassment for her church.