Flight attendants who blamed uniforms for their health issues win a lawsuit against clothing company

A jury in California ruled that a clothing company should pay more than $1 million to four American Airlines flight attendants who blamed chemicals used in the production of their uniforms for causing a variety of ailments including rashes, headaches and breathing problems.

The verdict last week could be just the tip of the iceberg: Lawyers say they represent more than 400 other flight attendants who are making the same claims against the uniform maker.

The judge has not affirmed the jury’s decision. A lawyer for the flight attendants called that step a technicality. The uniform maker’s lawyers declined to say whether they will appeal.

American gave new uniforms to flight attendants in 2016, and many were happy to get them after a decade wearing the same outfit. Complaints soon followed, however.

“I would wake up and my eyes would be completely swollen. I looked like I had been in a boxing match,” says Tracey Silver-Charan. “I was unable to breathe. I often felt like I was going to pass out on the job. I was coming home and my husband was running me to the urgent care.”

American gave flight attendants the option of wearing their old uniforms, or even picking out an outfit at Macy’s or JCPenney, said Silver-Charan, a Los Angeles-based flight attendant who has been in the field for 37 years.

Silver-Charan is part of a group of flight attendants who sued in 2017, and she was among four involved in the bellwether trial in Alameda County Superior Court near San Francisco to see how a jury would view the case.

The jury decided that the uniforms provided by Twin Hill Acquisition Co. were a “substantial factor in causing harm” to the flight attendants. However, jurors said the company was not negligent in its design of the garments nor in failing to recall them when complaints began to pour in.

“It’s been a long road, but we’re very happy with the outcome,” said Daniel Balaban, one of the lawyers for the airline employees. “We couldn’t represent better clients — who doesn’t love a flight attendant?”

Balaban said that other cases could go to trial if Twin Hill declines to settle them.

Twin Hill could ask the judge to reduce the jury award and could appeal the verdict. A lawyer for the company, Robert V. Good Jr., declined to comment when reached by phone.

American eventually ended the contract with Twin Hill and contracted with Land’s End for uniforms.

In their lawsuit, the flight attendants claimed that their uniforms contained traces of formaldehydetoluene and other toxic chemicals linked to health problems. Resins containing formaldehyde have been used in fabric for years to keep clothes wrinkle-free and make them last longer.

A 2010 study by congressional researchers found that formaldehyde levels in clothing is generally low, but some people suffer allergic reactions including rashes, blisters, and itchy or burning skin. Washing clothes before wearing them can help, but doesn’t always work, the researcher said.

The flight attendants’ lawyers put on witnesses who testified about a 2018 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, who reported finding a link between new uniforms and health complaints by Alaska Airlines attendants.

Lawyers for Twin Hill put on expert witnesses who discounted the potential health effects of the uniforms. Silver-Charan said none of the defense experts ever talked to her or asked to test her uniform for chemicals.

The jury proposed $320,000 in lost income and pain and suffering for Silver-Charan and $750,000 in damages for Brenda Sabbatino — the two attendants chosen by their lawyers.

Defense lawyers selected two others who had reported less severe health effects. For them, the jurors proposed $10,000 and $5,000 in damages.

Panorama Hispano is the regional news and information newspaper for Hispanic and other diverse communities.

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