Southwest Airlines is facing its first lawsuit off the back of last month’s fatal engine malfunction on flight 1380.

The suit, filed by passenger Lilia Chavez in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on 26 April, comes just over a week after a fan blade broke free of a CFM56-7B engine aboard a Southwest Boeing 737-700, shattering a window and killing a passenger on 17 April.

The complaint alleges that Chavez was sitting three seats behind the broken window and witnessed a passenger being partially pulled from the plane by the force of the depressurisation. Chavez says she was struck by flying debris which obstructed her breathing, and that she experienced “panic and horror” due to the violent conditions in the cabin.

A team from Southwest Airlines that met passengers on the ground after the aircraft made an emergency landing allegedly failed to “account for the shock that these innocent victims… were experiencing”, exacerbating the “traumatic stress” that Chavez says she endured.

Chavez alleges that Southwest and engine manufacturer CFM were aware of a “dangerous condition” existing in the CFM56-7B engines prior to the accident, and failed to take reasonable measures to identify and correct that condition. The suit noted a previous accident, claimed to have taken place on Southwest flight 3472 in August 2016, in which the fan blade in a CFM56-7B engine experienced a similar malfunction, forcing the aircraft to make an emergency landing.

After the incident on flight 3472, CFM recommended inspections of fan blades based on hours in service, similar to the emergency airworthiness directives issued by EASA and the FAA last week in the wake of the 17 April incident. Chavez, however, claims that Southwest did not follow, accelerate or properly complete CFM’s earlier recommendations.

The lawsuit goes on to say that such inspections are “not a cure” but rather a “band-aid” masking design, structural or manufacturing flaws in the engines that render the fan blades incapable of operating safely. Southwest did not issue warnings to passengers, nor did they remove dangerous engines from service, the lawsuit says, continuing to operate services despite  ongoing safety concerns. The suit claims that both Southwest and CFM “placed profits and business” before passenger safety.

LeClair Ryan partner Mark Dombroff told ALN last week that negligent infliction of emotional distress is claimable as a tort by plaintiffs who witness traumatic events in most US states, but courts are far from uniform in their approach. The majority apply the so-called foreseeability rule, which holds that the defendant must have been able to reasonably foresee that their actions would have caused the emotional distress.

CFM International is a joint venture co-owned by General Electric Aviation and France’s Safran SA, both of which were also named in the suit. The engine manufacturer said in a statement by email that they are “in the midst of an active NTSB investigation [into the incident] and… cannot comment on pending litigation”.

In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Lilia Chavez v Southwest Airlines Company et al

  • Judge Gerald McHugh

Counsel for Lilia Chavez

  • Katzman Lampert & Stoll

Bradley Stolls