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Appeals court: Southwest Airlines immune in passenger death

Southwest Airlines
Posted at 1:14 PM, Jun 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-10 16:14:18-04

SAN FRANCISCO (AP)  — A California appeals court ruled that Southwest Airlines is immune from liability in the 2014 death of a passenger whose medical crisis in an airplane lavatory was mistakenly thought by the crew to be a security threat.

The ruling Wednesday affirmed the decision of a trial court judge who limited the evidence heard by a jury in a lawsuit brought by the passenger's family.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 1st Appellate District was first reported by the Bay Area News Group.

The lawsuit against Southwest and the flight crew claimed that Rich Ilczyszyn, 46, of Newport Beach died because the crew failed to help him.

Ilczyszyn, a prominent financial trader, suffered a massive pulmonary embolism during the last 10 minutes of a California flight from Oakland to Orange County on Sept. 19, 2014, while he was locked in the lavatory.

According to trial records, flight attendants heard sounds like “grunting, growling (and) crying” but Ilczyszyn did not comply with requests to open the door and the crew could not push the door in because his foot was pressed against it.

The crew declared a lockdown and requested that law enforcement officers meet the plane upon landing. The other passengers were let off the plane before sheriff's deputies broke into the lavatory and found Ilczyszyn without a pulse.

He was resuscitated but had suffered brain damage and died in a hospital the next day. An autopsy report said the cause of death was pulmonary thromboembolism due to deep venous thrombosis — blood clots.

The judge ruled before trial of the lawsuit that under laws including the Aviation and Transportation Security Act the airline was immune from liability for any act or omission after the crew decided the incident was a security threat.

But the court allowed the case to proceed on actions in the initial period of time in which the flight attendants discovered Ilczyszyn was in the lavatory and tried to assess his situation.

The trial included medical testimony on whether the pulmonary embolism was survivable.

The jury found that Southwest was negligent but that the negligence was not a substantial factor in causing Ilczyszyn’s death, and a judgment in favor of Southwest was filed on Aug. 26, 2019.

The plaintiffs appealed on grounds that the trial court erred in applying the immunity law, limiting their case.

The appeals court ruled that the immunity was properly applied. It also noted in its 55-page decision that the jury's conclusion was "supported by substantial evidence based on the expert medical testimony” during the trial.