Airlines in the dock as DVT families win Lords hearing

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The Independent Online

Families of victims of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) have won the right to take their cases to the House of Lords in a legal breakthrough that could leave the airline industry liable for millions of pounds in compensation pay-outs.

Families of victims of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) have won the right to take their cases to the House of Lords in a legal breakthrough that could leave the airline industry liable for millions of pounds in compensation pay-outs.

Lawyers for the families said yesterday they were delighted that the country's highest court of appeal had finally decided to hear their arguments in full.

Des Collins, the solicitor based in Watford, Hertfordshire, who has been representing the families in their legal battle with the airlines for more than three years, said the decision was a "clear indication" that the law lords had been listening to rulings in other countries. "We had to wait a long time to reach this point. I hope we can now go on and win our case," he said.

The families were informed of the House of Lords' decision last week. The law lords said that they had now agreed to hear the case in full next year.

The eight test cases are being brought against British Airways and China Airlines, which have both agreed to waive their legal costs so that the courts can make a final ruling on DVT.

Lynda Walcott's husband Nigel, 40, a CCTV engineer, died of a blood clot in October 2000, the day after an eight-hour BA flight from Barbados. She said yesterday: "I'm really glad that the courts are going to come to a final conclusion. Too much has already been swept under the carpet and the general public needs to know about DVT." She said neither she nor her husband had heard of the condition at the time.

"Nigel started feeling ill as we went through passport control. He had shortened breath and was suffering a heart attack. The paramedics at Gatwick told him to go and see his GP. But because he was very fit and healthy and because of jetlag we didn't go immediately. When it was clear he was still not any better we went to the hospital at Southend. But shortly after we got there he stopped breathing and died."

Mr Collins says he has been contacted by around 500 other victims or families of airline passengers killed by DVT.

The families feared their battle for compensation was finished last July, when the Court of Appeal threw out their claim. Three senior judges decided DVT did not constitute an accident under the Warsaw convention, so airlines could not be held liable. However, in a landmark judgment this year, the US Supreme Court criticised this ruling and extended the meaning of what could constitute an accident. Mr Collins explained: "The Supreme Court went as far as to say the Court of Appeal was wrong. The US judges said that the Court of Appeal had failed to appreciate that there need not be a specific event for something like DVT to constitute an accident."

The Supreme Court was considering the issue of whether a claim based on passive smoking could fall within the terms of the 1929 Warsaw convention, the international treaty which governs air travel.

A spokeswoman for British Airways said last night: "We are aware that the House of Lords has given permission for an appeal. We await to hear what action the litigant will take. British Airways has offered to waive its legal costs if the House of Lords is asked to rule on whether airlines can be held liable for occurrences of DVT in air travellers."

She added: "Last summer, the Court of Appeal in the UK ruled that airlines could not be held accountable, backing up an earlier decision in the UK High Court. The decision left those who had brought the action with one last chance to prove their case - an appeal to the House of Lords, the ultimate court in the land.

"However, under UK law, the claimants might have had to pay BA's legal costs had they lost. If the action is discontinued, it could be alleged that BA and other carriers had only prevailed in the UK courts for financial reasons."

DVT is a blood clot that develops when movement is restricted, and often starts in the leg. If clots reach the lungs or brain they can prove fatal. Between 8,000 and 9,000 British airline travellers are estimated to develop DVT each year, with the condition claiming the lives of between 500 and 1,000 victims.