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Flight attendant's decompression sickness claim not compensable

Posted On: Sep. 25, 2019 1:48 PM CST

Airplane door

A flight attendant failed to show she suffered from decompression sickness after flying in an unpressurized plane, the Virginia Court of Appeals in Hampton held Tuesday.

In Pang v. Air Wisconsin Airlines, a three-judge panel unanimously affirmed a decision by the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission, holding that the evidence did not support the attendant’s assertion that she suffered from an occupational disease.

Jillian Pang worked a flight attendant for Air Wisconsin Airlines. On April 22, 2015, she flew with the captain and first officer from Columbia, South Carolina, to Norfolk, Virginia, where the plane was being taken for repairs because a warning light for the service door would not shut off. The plane was not pressurized on the flight as a safety precaution. The plane did not exceed 10,000 feet in altitude and two air conditioning packs supplied air to the plane during the entire flight.

Ms. Pang testified that she experienced a severe headache and earache on takeoff and during descent, but not during its time at top altitude. She had been treated for anxiety and ear issues prior to the flight, and subsequently sought treatment for multiple problems she said were caused by the flight, including headache, earache, jaw and neck pain, back pain, numbness, hand tingling, chest pain, bowel and bladder dysfunction, difficulty with thinking, speaking concentrating and focusing, and anxiety and depression.

She received $4,238 in disability benefits, then filed for claims of decompression illness from flying in the “malfunctioned aircraft” in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Her treating physician testified that her issues were due to “decompression sickness,” but also noted that she suffered from degenerative arthritis, and admitted that her information regarding the flight came solely from Ms. Pang. The airline’s COO testified that the plane flew at 9,000 feet and never exceeded 10,000, and that the flight would have been like any other because of the low altitude of the flight.

A deputy commissioner of the commission held in 2018 that Ms. Pang failed to prove that she suffered a compensable condition under the state’s Workers Compensation Act because she failed to “testify with sufficient credibility to overcome the weight of the evidence.” The full commission affirmed the decision.

Ms. Pang appealed, but the appellate court affirmed the ruling. She argued that the commission “erroneously” relied on the airline’s evidence that the plane’s altitude did not exceed 10,000 feet in finding that she suffered an injury, arguing that the did not need to prove the altitude, only that the plane’s descent with changing air pressure is what caused her ear and head pain.

The court, however, noted that no other evidence in the record supported Ms. Pang’s claim and that her orthopedic issues “predated any pressure changes in her airplane.”

The appellate court held that her claim “rose and fell on her own credibility, which the commission rejected.” Because the court found no error, it affirmed the ruling.