Los Angeles teachers sue Delta after jet fuel dump over schools, playgrounds

"Students began screaming and crying because their eyes and skin were burning. Fear, dread, panic, and helplessness ensued," according to a teacher.
NBC
/ Source: NBC News

Four Los Angeles teachers sued Delta Airlines less than a week after a China-bound plane dumped fuel over playgrounds and schools, citing emotional anguish and distress and accusing the pilot of failing to follow protocol.

The teachers, who have not been identified, say the airline was negligent by allowing the plane to depart in the first place.

In their suit, the teachers from Park Avenue Elementary School in south Los Angeles County, some 17 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, said they could feel fuel on their clothing, skin and eyes. The exposure caused the women to feel dizzy, nauseated and sick, attorney Gloria Allred said. Young students screamed and cried, she said.

"They also suffered severe emotional distress from the knowledge that they had involuntarily ingested toxins," Allred said in a statement Friday. "Their severe emotional distress includes the reasonable fear that the exposure to and ingestion of jet fuel might produce serious health consequences in the future."

The teachers are seeking compensatory damages.

Delta Airlines did not respond to a request for comment Friday, but has previously said the fuel dump was "required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight."

On Tuesday, Delta Flight 89, which was headed to Shanghai, experienced engine trouble shortly after takeoff. The pilot declared an in-flight emergency and notified air traffic control personnel that the plane needed to return to LAX. The pilot did not inform the control tower that the plane would need to dump fuel to lighten its load, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The teachers' lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleged that the Delta pilot "was specifically asked" by air traffic control personnel if he needed to dump fuel and the pilot allegedly replied "negative."

"We’ve got it under control," the pilot said, according to the lawsuit.

Allred said that if the pilot had properly alerted air traffic personnel on the ground, the flight would have been directed to a safe location and altitude from which it could dump fuel without posing a risk to the general public.

The pilot dropped fuel at around 2,000 feet, hitting several schools in its path.

One of the teachers in the suit said her fifth-grade students initially thought the jet fuel was rain. The children looked up "only to have noxious liquid then overwhelm [their] eyes, mouths, noses, lungs and skin," the teacher said in a statement.

An unidentified girl covers her mouth as she leaves with a relative the Park Avenue Elementary school in Cudahy, California, Tuesday, Jan. 14.Damian Dovarganes / AP

"I immediately began to rush my students indoors, as the fumes were stifling," she said. "Students began screaming and crying because their eyes and skin were burning. Fear, dread, panic, and helplessness ensued."

Teachers cared for their students rather than decontaminate themselves, she said.

Several people from the school community reported sinus and respiratory problems in the days following the incident.

Another teacher said she worried the fuel smell might have been the result of a terrorist attack. Her kids cried.

"I couldn’t smell anything other than the gas," the teacher said in a statement. "I couldn’t taste anything other than the gas."

The next day, the teacher, a 21-year veteran of Park Avenue Elementary, went to urgent care worried after her pain and nausea did not subside.

"I am scared of what can happen to my health and the health of my students, my friends and my colleagues," she said in a statement.

According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, jet fuel exposure can cause liver damage, decreased immune response and impaired neurological functions and hearing.

At least 20 children were treated for minor injuries after the incident, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. More than 60 people were treated from several schools in the area, the fire department said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said earlier this week that it was looking into reports that schoolchildren had been treated for fuel exposure.

Aviation experts say fuel dumps typically occur to reduce the planes’ weight for unexpected landings because some planes have maximum takeoff weights higher than their landing weights. In most cases, weight is burned off during flights.

At least six fuel dumps were reported last year, including incidents in Orlando, Florida; New York; London; and Canada. They all occurred at high altitudes or on airport tarmacs.