'Economy Class Syndrome' Sufferers Plan Lawsuit

ByMaggie Owens

L O N D O N, Aug. 1, 2001 -- Sufferers of "economy class syndrome" plan legal action against several airlines, alleging that they were not adequately warned that they could develop potentially deadly blood clots on long-haul flights.

Collins Solicitors, the British law firm representing the group, claims the airlines were aware of the risks of deep vein thrombosis, but opted not to share them with passengers until very recently when cabin health become a high-profile public issue.

Victims of DVT develop potentially dangerous blood clots from sitting in one position for long periods of time. The clots can dislodge and become fatal.

Plaintiffs include 30 Britons, 10 of whom lost loved ones to the condition. They plan to seek more than $15 million in damages.

These cases were introduced by the Victims of Air Related DVT Association, or VARDA. Chairwoman Ruth Christofferson lost her daughter to DVT in a highly publicized incident last year. She collapsed and died soon after stepping off a 12,000-mile flight from Australia at London's Heathrow Airport.

If this case is successful, it is expected to open the floodgates for further litigation against the airlines.

Des Collins, a senior partner at Collins Solicitors, did not identify every airline that will be targeted in the case, but confirmed that British Airways and American Airlines would be among them.

"The ideal outcome is that the industry is forced to acknowledge the problem," he said. "They have to take more seriously the concerns of the traveling public and not just pay lip service with a smile at the check-in desk."

Airlines' liability for passenger injuries and deaths are governed by the 1929 Warsaw Convention, which restricts airlines' liability on international flights to "accidents," defined as external events to passengers. Collins will attempt to widen the definition to include internal events as well, thus including DVT.

The second hurdle that the plaintiffs will face is to prove that there is sufficient evidence linking carriage by air, and not just prolonged sitting, to deep vein thrombosis.

More DVT Lawsuits Expected

According to the British medical journal The Lancet, one in 10 long-haul passengers are suspected to be at risk of developing DVT. An American Airlines representative told ABCNEWS.com they have received a letter of claim from Collins Solicitors and the issue is now in the hands of their legal department. They have no further comment.

British Airways confirmed they received a pre-action protocol letter from Collins Solicitors but would not confirm involvement in a lawsuit. They issued a statement which reads: "British Airways takes the health and well-being of its passengers extremely seriously." They claim they provide health information to passengers on the Internet, in the in-flight magazines and over the phone.

British Airways were recently one of three airlines named in a class-action law suit in Australia, in which 2,700 people seek reparations for DVT.

The case coincides with a call by the U.K.-based Aviation Health Institute for airlines to issue warnings on airline tickets advising of the hazards to passengers' health associated with flying.

Farrol Kahn, the director of the Aviation Health Institute, which supports the case being brought against the airlines, said: "[Passengers] have been ignored by the government and sidelined by the airlines. It is a problem. There are many risks in life but if you open a pack of cigarettes there is a warning. People need to know what the risks are, they need to be able to make an informed decision."