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Boeing Settles Former Flight Attendant's Suit Alleging Toxic Fume Exposure From Plane Design Defect



In October 2011, Airplane manufacturer Boeing announced a settlement with former flight attendant, Terry Williams. Williams, a Washington state resident, along with her husband, brought suit against the airplane maker for an alleged design defect. According to Williams' complaint, she was exposed to fumes while on board, and her exposure to toxins in jet fumes led to adverse long-term health impacts. Ms. Williams claimed to be unable to continue to work as a flight attendant because of her fume exposure and many illnesses she suffered in response. Williams' position is that Boeing knew of risks of fume exposure in its planes but did nothing to lessen, prevent, or even disclose those risks to crew and passengers, alleging that instead, Boeing covered up risks it knew of since the 1950s.

Terry Williams' Settlement the First Bleed Air Fume Event Case

The specific type of noxious fumes and contaminated air of which Ms. Williams complained is called bleed air in the airline industry. The term refers to air in the plane cabin that has been compressed by the engines. In the majority of instances, this compressed air is safe for inhaling and breathing. However, if the engine has a leak in its sealing mechanism and air mixes with engine oil that has been heated, that air can become contaminated. The cabin air that becomes potentially toxic because of the mixture of heated engine oil fumes that escape through a leaky seal is referred to as bleed air. In the airline industry, when a plane's cabin is filled with bleed air fumes and chemicals, a fume event results.

Like most airplane manufacturers, Boeing was not alone in its initial denial of fume events. These denials were steadfast for years. Later, manufacturers stepped away from those positions, and instead of categorical denials of fume events, makers minimized the danger and harm of the fume events.

Suit Alleges Adverse Health Effects From Bleed Air Exposure

Plaintiff Williams claims that the fume event she experienced in 2007 while on board a Boeing-made aircraft led to long-term illnesses and adverse health conditions. Williams claims to suffer from tremors, numbness, memory loss, headaches, blurred vision, vision loss, insomnia, traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other conditions. She hired Alisa Brodkowitz, a Seattle-based aviation lawyer, to prosecute her case. In response to Williams' claims, Boeing flatly refuted that a fume event was to blame for the host of health problems about which she complained. Despite Boeing's decision to settle the suit, the maker still denies any liability whatsoever in her case. Fortunately, the company has designed its new planes with pressurized cabins that do not use bleed air systems.