‘Aircraft Cabin Air Litigation’ Soon to Take-Off

In the wake of last week’s article (here), wherein we reported that Unite, the trade union, was aware of 54 individual ‘aerotoxic syndrome’ claims, we now report that group litigation, known as the ‘Aircraft Cabin Air Litigation’, may see 94 industrial disease claims assessed collectively.[i]

Last week, Judge Barbara Fontaine presided over a London High Court hearing to order collective case management. She confirmed that the ‘majority’ of claims have been brought against British Airways (BA) and that ‘many other claims’ have not yet been issued.

BA employs 16,500 cabin crew and 3,900 pilots. It is estimated that this wave of claims could cost the company (and by extension, their insurer) tens of millions of pounds.

In past editions of BC Disease News, we frequently updated our readers on the progress of a Coroner’s inquest into the death of BA pilot, Richard Westgate. In April 2017, it was found that Mr. Westgate’s cause of death, aged 43, had been the consequence of an unintended sleeping tablet (pentobarbital) overdose, as opposed to ‘aerotoxic syndrome’.

It is our understanding the estate of Mr. Westgate will be one of the lead claims in the class action lawsuit and is seeking £500,000 in compensation. Claimant counsel, Michael Rawlinson QC, referred to Mr. Westgate’s case as:

‘... just one of a number of cases where aerotoxicity is alleged to have either caused injury or materially contributed [to a cause of] death’.

David Platt QC, instructed on behalf of British Airways PLC, argued that any Order made should be restricted to claims involving his client in isolation, in order to avoid complicating proceedings with issues affecting particular airlines and aircraft types.

He further submitted that BA denies liability on issues of breach and causation, dismissing this litigation as ‘weak and speculative’:

‘... it challenges a technical, scientific and industry consensus through the propositions upon which the claimants rely’.

Having monitored this issue for over 4 years, we agree with David Platt QC that there is a dearth of medical literature which proves that ‘bleed air’ is not neurotoxic.

Theoretically, if ‘bleed air’ systems were judged to be at fault for toxic aircraft cabin exposure, BA would be forced to retrofit non-‘bleed air’ systems (those found in its Boeing 787’s) at a speculative cost of £6 million (£25,000 per aircraft).

Confusingly, alleged ‘fume events’ have been nicknamed ‘Eau de Boeing’ by proponents of this litigation, on account of their ‘malodorous background smell’.[ii] However, this adds confusion to the cause, as not all Boeing aircraft are fitted with 'bleed air' systems. It also allows Airbus to escape all association with aerotoxicity.

Judge Fontaine specified that up to 8 cases, including Mr. Westgate’s case, will return to Court for a full trial.

We will endeavour to disseminate the Group Litigation Order once it has been finalised and is publicly available.


[i] Family of BA pilot who died at 43 start landmark legal bid to prove his death came after inhaling toxic engine fumes on board in test case that could cost air industry tens of millions of pounds’ (8 April 2019 Daily Mail) <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6898583/British-Airways-pilot-died-inhaling-toxic-engine-fumes-centre-High-Court-case.html> accessed 9 April 2019.

[ii] Tristan Kirk, ‘Family of dead pilot in legal battle against BA over ‘polluted’ cabin’ (8 April 2019 Evening Standard) <https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/family-of-dead-pilot-in-legal-battle-against-ba-over-polluted-cabin-a4111731.html> accessed 9 April 2019.