6 November 2002

Airlines 'hiding behind' biplane rules over DVT

By David Millward

Major airlines were accused yesterday of using a treaty drawn up in the age of biplanes to avoid their responsibilities to victims of deep vein thrombosis.

Opening a High Court case on behalf of 56 claimants, either sufferers from DVT or relatives of those who died, Stuart Cakebread said they were victims of the companies' "culpable acts" or omissions. DVT was, he said, a disease that could leave its victims "crippled for life or dead".

The case, which is due to last three days, is part of what is expected to be a prolonged legal battle. It follows mounting evidence of the dangers of DVT, which can be fatal if the blood clot - formed in deep veins after hours of sitting in cramped conditions - reaches the brain.

The illness was dubbed "economy class syndrome" because its most likely victims were those travelling in cheaper seats with less leg room. In reality, all passengers were at risk.

The 56 cases brought before the High Court yesterday represented only a fraction of the number of potential claims, Mr Cakebread said. More than 300 people had been in touch with solicitors.

Airlines are challenging the claim, arguing that the 1929 Warsaw Convention makes them liable only for injuries resulting from an accident. DVT, they say, is the reaction of passengers to the normal operation of an aircraft.

This, Mr Cakebread said, was a preliminary hurdle placed in the claimants' way by airlines who, in the age of the jumbo jet, were trying "to hide behind the working of a convention drawn up in the days of the biplane."

DVT was not a phenomenon that struck rarely or unexpectedly, he told Mr Justice Nelson.

"We are dealing with statistically predictable and relatively frequent deaths and injuries inflicted, the claimants say, by the acts and neglect of those who they are paying to look after them."

He highlighted four cases: Emma Christoffersen, 28, who died following a holiday in Australia; Nigel Walcott, 40, who died on returning from Barbados; Freda Labarte, who died on her return from Canada; and Christine Pearcy, 55, who died minutes after getting off a plane from America.

Mrs Pearcy, from Hinkley, Leicestershire, had been to Dallas and Las Vegas with her husband, David.

"The airlines know the risks but we are not being told," Mr Pearcy, 59, said. "They are responsible and should acknowledge that."

Ms Christofferson's mother, Ruth, 56, from Newport, Gwent, was in court. "Airlines need to know that they cannot walk away from the fact that there is a problem and people are dying on our aeroplanes," she said.

More than 20 leading airlines have been identified as potential defendants. They include British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

A British Airways spokesman said the airline would be contesting the claim, arguing that no specific link between DVT and flying had been established.