It sounds like a flight from hell.
JetBlue Airways Flight 429 from Boston to Sacramento last Aug. 11 took off at 6 p.m. on a Thursday for what should have been a six-and-a-half hour trip. Instead, the plane hit violent turbulence that forced an emergency landing in Rapid City, S.D., and sent 24 passengers and three crew members to a local hospital for treatment.
“All of a sudden, the plane just dropped,” passenger Christopher De Vries told The Bee at the time. “It dropped fast enough so that things just flew up in the air.
“I just saw laptops, candy and soda splashing onto the ceiling.”
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Now, the incident is the subject of two lawsuits in federal court in Sacramento, the most recent filed Wednesday on behalf of two passengers who say they suffered neck and other injuries that require medical treatment to this day.
The latest lawsuit, filed by Michelle Hill, a Sacramento County resident, and Ariel Epstein Pollack, a Yolo County woman, alleges that the JetBlue crew “disregarded the threat of a major thunderstorm over South Dakota.”
“JetBlue then flew Flight 429 directly into that thunderstorm,” the lawsuit claims. “During this time, JetBlue chose not to advise its Flight 429 passengers to stay seated with seatbelts fastened.
“As a consequence, the thunderstorm’s sudden and severe turbulence threw passengers repeatedly about the cabin and into the ceiling. Many passengers and crew were unrestrained.”
Michelle Hill was one of those, the lawsuit says. Hill was returning from the restroom and had sat down but not yet strapped on her seat belt when the plane hit turbulence and “she flew up and hit her head on the ceiling,” the lawsuit says.
Ariel Pollack had her seatbelt on and was sleeping at the time, but when the turbulence hit “she flew out of her seat and slammed back down with a great force.”
“Only after the aircraft had flown into the severe weather did flight attendants announce to the passengers to be seated and fasten seat belts,” the lawsuit says.
Lawyers for Hill and Pollack did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, but the lawsuit describes both passengers as suffering severe injuries.
Hill “could not move her neck and was in shock from the trauma,” the suit says, and continues to suffer from head and neck pain, mental stress and nightmares and has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
Pollack had undergone spinal fusion surgery six months prior to the flight and, after hitting the turbulence, had such pain that “her lower and mid-back felt like it was on fire,” the lawsuit says.
JetBlue declined to comment, saying in an email that “we do not comment on pending litigation.”
But the airline has disputed similar claims in a suit filed a month after the incident. In that suit, JetBlue says in court papers that it adheres to Federal Aviation Administration safety guidelines and that the airline will argue at trial that the “alleged injuries” were not caused by the airline “but were caused by the comparative fault of the plaintiff(s).”
The first lawsuit was filed on behalf of passenger Xuan Thi Phan, a Sacramento County woman who was injured when she got up to go to the restroom, according to that lawsuit.
Phan’s lawsuit says the seat belt sign was not on when she stood up and that when the plane hit the turbulence she fell, then was tossed up into the air and slammed into the ceiling, then fell again.
“As she was thrown downward, she again struck her head and shoulder,” her lawsuit says. “A door of the overhead bin broke ... loose and hit (Phan) on the head.”
Phan’s injuries continue to cause her pain, dizziness, memory problems and difficulty concentrating, her suit says.
Both lawsuits were filed by Elk Grove attorney Glenn Guenard. The Phan lawsuit also lists the Seattle law firm of Friedman Rubin, which advertises on its website that its efforts “representing plane crash victims, commercial airline passengers, pilots, flight attendants and helicopter crash victims has been nationally recognized.”
“It has resulted in obtaining millions of dollars in compensation for injured clients,” the site says.
The firm’s website apparently got under JetBlue’s corporate skin in the Phan lawsuit, with the company’s attorneys complaining that Friedman Rubin is using the lawsuit “as a marketing tool” to attract more clients.
JetBlue complained in court papers that “the day after filing the lawsuit,” Friedman Rubin posted a notice saying it was leading the litigation against JetBlue and “if you were injured on a flight, anywhere in the United States, contact Friedman Rubin and tell us your story.”
“This is an abuse of litigation and discovery and it should not be tolerated by the court,” JetBlue’s attorneys argued in court papers objecting to efforts to add Hill and Pollack to the Phan suit.
Friedman Rubin answered by noting JetBlue’s “vehement opposition” and wrote that Hill and Pollack would later file their own lawsuit.
That came Wednesday, with the two passengers saying in their suit that JetBlue did not provide up-to-date weather information to the crew, did not warn passengers of the massive thunderstorm ahead and flew “the aircraft straight into it.”
A preliminary report on the incident filed by the National Transportation Safety Board on Dec. 8 found that the flight “encountered turbulence in cruise flight ... while maneuvering to avoid convective weather.”
“As a result of the turbulence, three flight attendants and 24 passengers received minor injuries,” the NTSB reported. “The remaining 124 passengers and crew were not injured.
“The airplane received minor damage.”