Flight attendants lawsuit: Boeing airliner design led to toxic cabin air, sickness, injuries

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jun 23, 2015

Four flight attendants who became ill while working aboard an Alaska Airlines flight which made an unscheduled landing in Chicago in July 2013 have sued Chicago-based aircraft builder Boeing, alleging the illnesses and injuries, which were severe enough to prevent two of them from ever returning to their former jobs, were the result of the way the airliner was designed to circulate air in the craft’s cabin.

Flight attendants Vanessa Woods, Faye Oskardottir, Darlene Ramirez and Karen Neben, with Neben’s husband, Nathan, filed a complaint Monday, June 22, in Cook County Circuit Court against Boeing Company, alleging the company designed and built aircraft the company knew had the potential to draw in pollution to the air breathed by passengers and crews while in flight.

The flight attendants are represented in the action by attorneys Joe Powers, of the firm of Power Rodgers and Smith PC, of Chicago; Zoe Littlepage and Rainey Booth, of Littlepage Booth, of Houston; Rick Friedman and Sean Gamble, of Friedman Rubin, of Bremerton, Wash.; and Alisa Brodkowitz, of Brodkowitz Law, of Seattle.

The case centers on what the plaintiffs assert is the faulty design of all Boeing airliners, with the exception of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner:

A “dirty little secret of the commercial airline industry,” namely the system by which most of Boeing’s airliners circulate cabin air.

According to the complaint, the “bleed air system” works by drawing in air through the aircraft’s engines. This, they said, can cause the air entering an airliner’s cabin to become “contaminated with jet engine oil and its toxic by-products,” which can include “neurotoxins such as organophosphates” – chemical compounds used in insecticides, herbicides, pesticides and nerve agents.

The complaint notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the residential use of organophosphates in 2001 “in part because of their risk to human health.”

According to the complaint, polluting compounds such as those were drawn into the cabin of the Alaska Airlines flight the flight attendants were working on July 12, 2013.

The airliner, a Boeing 737, had flown earlier in the day from San Diego to Maui, before traveling to Boston’s Logan International Airport for a flight back to San Diego.

The flight attendants boarded the airliner in Boston to work the flight to San Diego.

The complaint asserts the flight attendants, upon boarding, noticed a smell likened to “burnt oil” or “dirty socks” – smells the complaint notes are characteristic of the toxins allegedly drawn into the aircraft under Boeing’s design.

However, the complaint states the flight attendants at the time were unaware of the dangers the smells might portend, and the airliner took off on its run to southern California.

After takeoff, however, the flight attendants said the smell intensified and soon those in the galley became ill.

Neben allegedly complained to the captain “her throat was burning.” Oskardottir later allegedly fainted and began to vomit, and Woods “passed out” in the passenger cabin after helping move patients away from the rear of the craft, where the toxins were allegedly concentrated.

The other two flight attendants also complained of being ill, and all received assistance from medical personnel who were passengers aboard the flight.

The flight was then diverted to Chicago, where firefighters and other emergency personnel boarded the aircraft, taking the flight attendants to Resurrection Medical Center, where health issues lingered, including difficulty speaking and sustained headaches and dizziness.

The complaint asserts doctors at the hospital diagnosed the flight attendants as having suffered “hydrocarbon exposure.”

The complaint alleges ozone converters removed from the aircraft after the incident “failed performance tests, falling far short of efficiency standards.

The flight attendants allege they have continued to suffer from a host of maladies in connection with the incident, and have suffered lost wages.

Two of the four flight attendents could not return to their former jobs, and one “lives permanently with her mother.”

Their five count complaint against Boeing includes allegations of strict liability for defective design of the airliner and for failing to warn flight crews of the potential danger, as well as negligence and fraud.

They accuse Boeing of having “purposefully concealed, failed to disclose, misstated, downplayed and understated the health hazards and risks associated with cabin air contamination on its aircraft,” despite about 40 warnings and studies demonstrating concerns about the design of the air circulation system from numerous sources dating from the 1950s to the present day.

The flight attendants have requested unspecified damages and a jury trial.

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Organizations in this Story

The Boeing Company U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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