‘Bleed Air’ Case Against Airlplane Manufacturers Settles
Terry Williams, above left, a 42-year-old mother of two, is now permanently disabled. Years ago, this former flight attendant for American Airlines suffered severe injury to her central nervous system after being exposed to toxic “bleed air” — engine oil fumes emitted from a defectively designed Boeing aircraft into the plane’s air supply.The plane, which had been manufactured by the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, did not have a system installed to detect the presence of contaminated air in the cabin. Despite the wide availability of detection devices and the prevalence of bleed air events, Boeing never acted on the evident risks. Due to her exposure, Ms. Williams became disabled and could no longer work.
Ms. Williams and her husband file a lawsuit against McDonnell Douglas and Boeing seeking damages for her injuries. The defendants sought total immunity on the ground that state-law claims for defective design are preempted — i.e., totally wiped out — by the Federal Aviation Act and its implementing regulations.
Public Justice argued, in its opposition brief, that state tort claims are, in fact, not preempted when the aircraft design violates federal safety regulations. In this case, the brief explained, the airplane’s design clearly violated a federal regulation requiring that cabin air be free from hazardous fumes.
In July 2011, the court held that the plaintiffs had the right to prove their case in court. In the wake of that ruling, the defendants quickly settled the case out of court for a confidential amount.
In the course of defending the case, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing produced hundreds of thousands of pages of documents describing their knowledge of the toxic bleed air problem reaching all the way back to the 1950s. Indeed, thousands of similar incidents happen every year, yet the problem of toxic bleed air on airplanes rarely gets talked about. There are some notable exceptions — including this recent MSNBC article — but there is still an alarming lack of coverage of an issue that potentially affects millions of airline crew members and unsuspecting passengers.
In representing Ms. Williams, Public Justice joined Alisa Brodkowitz (at right in the above picture), an aviation attorney in Seattle and lead cooperating counsel. In addition, Williams was represented by cooperating counsel Michael Withey, also of Seattle, Public Justice Senior Attorney Leslie Brueckner, and former Brayton-Thornton Attorney Melanie Hirsch.
Brueckner and Hirsch were instrumental in defeating the defendants’ attempt to get the case thrown out of court on federal preemption grounds. Without that win, Williams v. McDonnell Douglas would likely not have settled.
(Photo: Chris Wilson/msnbc.com)