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'Economy Class Syndrome' Lawsuits Against Airlines Can Move Forward

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The drive to make airlines responsible for passengers who develop deep vein thrombosis -- the potentially deadly blood clots often linked to long flights -- is picking up momentum with a federal court judge's refusal to dismiss two lawsuits.

The cases were filed by two passengers on trans-Atlantic flights who developed ''economy class syndrome,'' the nickname given DVT because it is caused by hours of sitting in cramped conditions.

This month in San Francisco, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that the plaintiffs are entitled to pursue their claims under the Warsaw Convention of 1929, which governs airline liability. The convention holds that an airline is liable if a passenger suffers death or bodily injury in an accident while on board an aircraft or while embarking or disembarking.

The court defined the ''accident'' as the airlines' failure to warn passengers of the health risks.

The decision marks only the second time such a case has been allowed to proceed. A judge in Galveston, Texas, refused to dismiss a DVT suit against Continental Airlines last year.

The suits before Walker were filed by two passengers on flights from Paris to San Francisco. Debra Miller of Oakland is suing Continental Airlines. She had a near-fatal heart attack and had open-heart surgery to remove a blood clot two weeks after her flight April 12, 2001. Miller, who had traveled to Europe to run in the Paris Marathon, now takes blood thinners daily.

Daniel Wylie of Anthem, Ariz., is suing American Airlines. He developed a blood clot in his leg after a flight July 4, 2001. He recovered from the effects of the clot.

''This ruling . . . means that airlines are finally going to have to start taking deep vein thrombosis seriously,'' said Mike Danko, the attorney representing both plaintiffs. Continental and American Airlines declined to comment on pending litigation. No trial date has been set.

About 10% of air travelers develop DVT, but most clots dissolve naturally in the bloodstream. Those that don't can travel to the lungs, causing a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. Clots that bypass the lungs can travel to the brain, leading to stroke.

Danko, who has about 30 DVT cases pending, said airlines should be held liable for failing to warn passengers about the risks associated with long air travel.

''For many years, airlines have known of the risks but have denied them. Now they've eased into making some warnings but still haven't said why.''

Experts point to a number of factors that might contribute to increased risk for DVT on long-haul flights. During air travel, dehydration and decreased oxygen content in the blood can trigger clotting mechanisms. Sitting immobile for long periods also can contribute to blood pooling, especially in the lower legs.

But doctors warn that passengers flying long distances can take a number of common-sense precautions to lessen the likelihood of blood clots. Those include staying hydrated, moving around periodically and wearing compression stockings.

Many airlines do tell passengers to follow such precautions, either in safety videos, in-flight magazines or on ticket jackets. ''Airlines tell you that these things are good for your comfort, but they don't tell you that you could get a blood clot and die,'' Danko said.

More information on DVT symptoms, risks and prevention is available at

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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