First step passed in legal battle over DVT deaths

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The Independent Online

Relatives of air travellers killed by deep vein thrombosis, the condition also known as economy class syndrome, won the right to bring a multimillion- pound combined legal action against the airlines yesterday.

It was the first step in what will be a lengthy test case, pitting almost 300 people who have either suffered from economy class syndrome or lost family to it against two dozen airlines.

The roll call of potential claimants includes Brenda Wilson, who lost her "fit, young" son Neil after a short flight to Spain; Lynda Walcott, whose 40-year-old husband, Nigel, suffered DVT after a trip from Barbados; and Ruth Christoffersen, whose 28-year-old daughter, Emma, died minutes after stepping off a flight from Sydney. They are joined by a host of other travellers who survived potentially lethal blood clots.

Yesterday senior High Court official Master Turner gave the go-ahead for a group action, subject to approval by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf. "The sooner we get this action properly constituted within the framework of a group litigation order the better because time is passing," he said.

While solicitors for the families initially estimated that the case could be expanded to at least 150 passengers, counsel Stuart Cakebread QC revealed that 286 potential claimants had come forward so far. It has been estimated that the damages claim against the airline industry could reach £100m.

Neil Wilson, a 32-year-old from Wigan with two children, was found dead by his young son just nine hours after the family flew to Benidorm in January last year. He died of heart failure caused by a blood clot.

His mother, Brenda Wilson, said: "The money really isn't an issue and it won't bring him back. This is all about getting the airlines to do something before we lose more lives.

"The airlines say they are doing something, but it is small pieces in in-flight magazines and videos. If Neil had known of any precautions he would have taken them and would be here today.

"They are saying only long-haul flights are affected, but there's growing evidence it's flights of two hours and more. He was a fit young lad who went on a family holiday and never returned."

Lawyers for the claimants are expected to argue that the aviation industry knew of the risks of DVT for decades yet failed to warn passengers.

Gerda Goldinger, a lawyer at Watford-based Collins Solicitors, said: "Airlines are now issuing warnings and advising passengers to take the necessary precautions. It's our position that they ought to have done this a long time ago."

Yesterday's hearing centred specifically on Mrs Walcott's suit against British Airways. Her husband, from Benfleet, Essex, died a day after getting off a flight from the Caribbean in October 2000.

Robert Lawson, representing a number of airlines, insisted there was an important preliminary issue to be decided first. This was whether DVT could be deemed an accident under the terms of the Warsaw Convention, he said.

The Convention, which applies to all international carriage of persons by aircraft for reward, allows for recovery of compensation only in respect of personal injury or death caused by an accident.

"In our submission, the only true group issue that we can ascertain at the moment is as to whether, as a matter of principle, the onset of DVT in the course of, or arising out of, carriage by air, can amount to an accident," he said.

Some estimates suggest there could be 1,000 to 2,000 deaths from DVT each year.