Northwest sued for late start with AEDs

January 10, 2003 | The Business Journal (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
By Andrew Tellijohn, Staff Reporter

On New Year's Eve in 1999, Sushil Malhotra boarded a Northwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Milwaukee. While on board, he suffered cardiac arrest.

Although Malhotra's wife summoned help from a flight attendant, no one attempted any resuscitation until after the flight landed at its destination, according to court documents.

He died in the hospital on Jan. 2.

Now, Malhotra's daughter, Abha Malhotra, has filed suit against Eagan-based Northwest Airlines Corp., alleging that the carrier was negligent in not having an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on board to resuscitate Sushil Malhotra.

Major competitors had begun installing the equipment in the mid-1990s. Despite extensive media coverage and congressional hearings on the benefits offered by AEDs, Northwest was among the last of the major airlines to announce intentions to deploy them, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2001, Northwest announced that it had fitted its fleet of airplanes with defibrillators and advanced medical kits.

That announcement was of little solace to the Malhotra family, said Paul Weinberg, partner with Northampton, Mass.-based Weinberg & Garber.

"What took them so long?" he said. "Why were they waiting?"

Weinberg declined to say how much the firm is seeking in damages. In a similar lawsuit, filed in 1998 against Elk Grove Township, Ill.-based United Airlines, a woman sought $18 million for negligence that allegedly resulted in the death of her husband.

The case was settled two years later for an undisclosed amount, according to media reports.

Northwest Airlines spokeswoman Mary Beth Schubert said the airline is now in full compliance with upcoming Federal Aviation Administration requirements to have defibrillators on airliners by May 2004.

The company declined comment on the current litigation. The airline has not filed an answer to the Malhotra complaint, which was filed in December in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.

The complaint and media reports from the mid-to-late 1990s indicate that Northwest was behind its peers in adding the technology.

American Airlines, Fort Worth, Texas, was the first, accouncing in late 1996 its intentions to install the devices. A year later it had.

The airline saved its first passenger with the device on a 1998 flight and has resuscitated dozens since.

Northwest promised in May 1999 to have its planes equipped with defibrillators by year's end. It repeated that promise in September of that year, but had not started installing them by the new year, according to the Malhotra complaint.

"Northwest knew that passengers would suffer cardiac arrest on board planes, that they had experienced such cardiac arrests in the past, and would experience them in the future," the document states. "Northwest knew that if it did not equip its planes with AEDs, passengers suffering cardiac arrest on board its planes would die."

Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based air travel consumer advocate, said he has no problem with requiring airlines to have defibrillators on board, though he worries that the regulations won't stop.

"Why are airfares so high? Because insurance is so high," he said. "What's next? Heart surgeons have to be on board?"

While it is good that airlines are trying to upgrade their in-flight medical capabilities, airlines shouldn't be facing lawsuits for not having them on board, Trippler said, adding, "These are gold diggers."

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