Victims of deep vein thrombosis lost a four-year compensation battle against airlines yesterday in a ruling that gives the travel industry legal immunity for "economy class syndrome".
The House of Lords ruled that lesser courts correctly threw out an application by passengers or their families seeking to sue two airlines, British Airways and China Airlines, for death and injury from deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
The action was a test case that could have thrown the air industry open to compensation claims for millions of pounds.
Airline passengers can develop DVT because their movement is restricted and blood clots develop, often in the legs. If the clot reaches the lungs or brain, DVT can be fatal and the condition kills between 500 and 1,000 passengers a year.
Lawyers representing eight claimants - two relatives and six survivors - claimed that the airlines were responsible for DVT under the 1929 Warsaw Convention governing air travel.
They argued that the carriers had failed to warn passengers that cramped flying conditions and long hours in the air could give rise to DVT. Consequently, they said, the breach of duty or obligation constituted an "accident".
After two months' consideration, the law lords ruled that, since there was nothing unusual in the course of the flights, the development of DVT could not be considered to involve "any ordinary or extended conception of 'accident'."
Lady Hale said that an internal reaction to an "ordinary uncomfortable journey by air", during which nothing other than that reaction took place, was not liable to compensation.
By making the ruling, the House of Lords backed the rejection of the case by the Court of Appeal in 2003, which ruled DVT could not be considered an "event". That appeal was held in response to the High Court's rejection of the case in 2002.
British Airways said the ruling meant no claims for injury or death caused by DVT during the normal operation of an aircraft could now be brought against airlines in the UK.
Sean Gates, a solicitor for the airline, said: "You can sit on your couch or in a cinema and watch War And Peace and still contract DVT. The issue is whether or not that sitting is an accident and the fact, as we see from the House of Lords, is that it isn't."
British Airways said it would continue to provide advice and information about DVT to customers through ticket wallets, the internet, on-board videos and in-flight magazines.
Des Collins, of Collins Solicitors in Watford which brought the action, said he was considering taking the case to the European Court in Strasbourg.
His firm began the case in 2001 against 26 airlines on behalf of 55 claimants. The £500,000 of legal fees for the eight remaining claimants were funded through legal provisions of their household insurance.
One of the cases was brought by Timothy Stuart, the partner of Emma Christofferson, who died after flying the London to Melbourne route on BA and Qantas in 2000.
Mr Collins said: "The judgment has in effect provided a blanket immunity for civil suits against the industry in relation to DVT. It's regrettable that they should have sought to have obtained that immunity."
John Smith MP, an aviation health campaigner, vowed to redouble his efforts to bring about a change in the law. "We believe the law lords missed an opportunity to apply some common sense by bringing airlines in line with other passenger carriers."
The Labour MP for Vale of Glamorgan intended to table a motion in Parliament calling on the Government to bring in legislation placing a duty of care on airlines for the health of passengers.Reuse content