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United Airlines

How Ill Is Ill Enough to Request An Emergency Landing?

How Ill Is Ill Enough to Request An Emergency Landing?
Jackie Reddy

Lewis and Roseanne Christman are suing United after crew apparently refused to make an emergency landing in order for Mr. Christman to receive medical treatment for an attack of acute pancreatitis. The Christmans accuse United of negligence and United says that it is looking into the matter.

United Airlines passenger who took ill during a Rome-bound flight is bringing legal action against the carrier after crew allegedly refused to conduct an emergency landing in order for him to receive treatment, Bloomberg reports.

During the May 2016 incident, the outlet reports that passenger Lewis Christman, who suffered an attack of acute pancreatitis while flying from Chicago to Rome, was forced to endure severe pain and nausea for the entirety of the flight. Christman, who was traveling to Italy with his wife, Roseanne, was in considerable discomfort during the trans-Atlantic journey, the outlet reports. He was eventually given a business class seat, but spent the rest of the flight “in agony.”

As reported by the outlet, Christman alleges that the carrier failed to offer him immediate medical assistance, “and declined a recommendation from a doctor on board that they divert the flight.” Christman also alleges that crew members did not alert medical staff on the ground to the severity of his illness, something that he believes had a negative impact on his condition as it delayed necessary medical treatment.

According to court documents, Christman received hospital treatment upon landing in Rome and then returned to the U.S. via an air ambulance in June 2016. He was hospitalized for three months in Chicago and had to undergo both gallbladder and gastric surgery as a result of his condition.

The outlet reports that, “The couple, who are alleging negligence and loss of consortium, are seeking at least $100,000 in damages.”

Commenting on the case, David Axelrod, the couple’s legal representative, said, “When there is an emergency situation with someone who was as sick as Mr. Christman was, United Airlines has an obligation to land the plane, and get him to the emergency room as quickly as possible.”

United spokesperson Erin Benson Scharra, commented only to say, “We are aware of the suit and are looking into the matter.”

[Photo: Shutterstock]

View Comments (23)


  1. phred007

    May 26, 2018 at 2:22 am

    I hope this gets dismissed. The patient was unwell when he boarded- acute pancreatitis would not come on in the time frame of the flight, and if it did, he could certainly have waited until Italy. It seems that this man avoided his civic duty to not fly whilst not fit to fly?

  2. cosflyer

    May 27, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    iirc united for sure and maybe delta and american can communicate with medical professionals on the ground in these circumstances and determine the best course of action, i know as i was witness to a situation where a p.a. on board said it would be best to land and and the crew was able to communicate with a Dr that determined that it was best to take care of it at the destination, not saying this situation warranted a continue as planned but the crew did say they were advised to continue to dublin and not turn around and head back to gander.

  3. rjlon

    May 31, 2018 at 4:17 am

    Was the pax aware of his condition and did he seek medical permission to fly?

  4. ShamRockSteady

    May 31, 2018 at 4:22 am

    The emergency service on the ground would have made the recommendation – airlines have constant access to a network of physicians who assist from the ground when a passenger is unwell. I sympathize with the crew as they were probably trained to follow the instructions of the medical team on the ground. Although I do think the physician on board should have had the final say.

  5. laperk1028

    May 31, 2018 at 4:22 am

    United could only go by their communication with medical professionals – and I think they could lose based on the doc on board’s recommendation. hope they have his/her name/address for litigation. Another general and separate question is “how sick do you have to be to have the plane turn around on an active taxi-way and return to the gate to let an ill person de-plane prior to takeoff?”. I’ve seen this many times and the decisions are routinely made by FA’s (who else can make the decision if no med personnel on board?). I’ve seen them deny getting an ill person back to the gate at Newark, when they were the 21st plane in line for takeoff. Pretty inconvenient for the airline, but I also know a lady who DIED waiting for the plan to take off. I don’t think there were a lot of warning signs for her, but…….

  6. Basil B

    May 31, 2018 at 4:32 am

    The cost incurred probably would exceed the $100,000, did the Christman’s have insurance to cover that???

  7. steveopenskies

    May 31, 2018 at 7:03 am

    Childbirth, heart attack, stroke; these would indicate the need for an emergency landing. I agree with the first point, that the passenger probably had some indication of the condition before he flew and should, therefore, not have boarded.

  8. wanderer35

    May 31, 2018 at 7:10 am

    It is so fashionable to sue everybody, especially the airlines, all the time for everything and anything,

    In this case the life of the passenger was not endangered by the decision not to make an unscheduled landing, so what is the problem?

  9. sartech

    May 31, 2018 at 7:16 am

    Doctors and PAs who work in hospitals outside of the emergency room are going to typically have a bias towards recommending landing. Field medical providers (fire, EMS, military, and ER staff) will often be less overly-cautious when it comes to problems that are uncomfortable, but evaluated to be stable. The companies that provide medical direction to the airlines are paid to make these kinds of determinations, hence you will have a disparity like this.

    Not all medical conditions that would be transported promptly in an urban environment require extraordinary measures of evacuation in austere environments, to which a plane qualifies to some degree.

    I was on a westbound flight to Asia on a 747 when I (EMT) along with an army medic, were asked by the crew to look at a passenger with significant GI discomfort. The pilot came out and told me that we were flying over Alaska, and I needed to make a call right now whether to divert to Anchorage, or continue on to Asia.

    The patient was stable. I didn’t see a need to divert. They even improved over the next few hours. I have no doubt that many medical providers who don’t work outside of hospitals or clinics would have had the plane land out of an abundance of caution simply because there was *some* problem.

    The fact that he had a known medical condition before boarding wouldn’t affect whether the plane diverted or not. It might affect whether the airline filed a lawsuit after the fact to recover the cost of a diversion if they had done so. Somewhere in the legal terms for your ticket, I believe that you agree that you are medically fit to fly.

  10. 2stepbay

    May 31, 2018 at 7:21 am

    I hope too this gets dismissed. Why people decide to fly when already ailing is confounding. Lower air pressure, drier cabin etc. will only accentuate health challenges. I flew from Cape Town to Frankfurt a couple of months ago. A man, who was not well, had a heart attack 30 minutes out of Cape Town. By the time we were just north of Namibia, captain decided to turn the plane around and land in Windhoek. This resulted in a 3 1/2 hour extension to the flight. As a result, I missed my US connection.

  11. sailor279

    May 31, 2018 at 7:38 am

    agree with @phred007. As much as I hate to say it, emergency landing should be used only for life-threatening emergencies. If a passenger can’t be stabilized aboard, then an emergency landing is in order.

  12. Roamin'Around

    May 31, 2018 at 7:48 am

    I get kidney stones on occasion, and I won’t go on an airplane without having appropriate pain killers with me.
    Me thinkst that there is more to the story than as presented by the plaintiff… And would the plaintiff have reimbursed the airline for the cost of diverting the plane, including the compensation that would have been given to the other 200 passengers on board?

  13. befaithful

    May 31, 2018 at 8:12 am

    If he knew was ill, he shouldn’t have boarded. However, my husband developed acute pancreatitis last summer, and I can offer assurance that this condition can hit suddenly without advance notice and with unbearable pain. The first line of treatment is hospitalization for pain alleviation and hydration. My husband can’t imagine having to endure what that man had to endure with the long flight.

  14. Disneymkvii

    May 31, 2018 at 8:58 am

    Hoping UA beats this one. Not everything is someone’s fault.

  15. UKTroll

    May 31, 2018 at 9:11 am

    If he suffered severe pain and nausea ‘for the entirety of the flight’, then he will have been symptomatic before boarding – certainly before takeoff – and should not have flown in the first place.

  16. scfw0x0f

    May 31, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    Where does either this story or the original on Bloomberg suggest that the pax was symptomatic when boarding? According the the Bloomberg story as well, the suit alleges that the flight crew failed to contact a ground-based medical team.

    Where is there any accounting that the pax did anything wrong here?

  17. laperk1028

    May 31, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    No one really knows for an absolute fact that the guy was ill before the flight took off. Pancreatitus can happen very suddenly as one of the posts said. No one knows for sure they are “medically fit to fly” thanks to acute MI’s, aneurysms and situations such as this. Easy for us to judge sitting at the computer. Having said that, I absolutely agree that “not everything is someone’s fault” – but when it clearly is, time to address it.

  18. ellienyc

    May 31, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    I’m unclear as to where they expected the plane to divert to on a transatlantic flight. Unless he got very sick at beginning of flight while plane was still over land, and wanted plane to land,say in New York? Or maybe once it was over continent, maybe wanted it to land an hour or so before it reached Rome in, say, Zurich? Did lawsuit discuss the options?

  19. dagny11

    May 31, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    Pancreatitis is a life threatening illness. It is also one of the most painful illnesses ever, and it can start very quickly . The passenger was probably fine when he got on the flight. That being said , a blood test is required to diagnose pancreatitis.

  20. ylefin

    May 31, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    We diverted to Stockhom after one hour on 4 hour flight from Helsinki to Malaga. I must say we passengers felt a bit cheated when the sick person walked out in seemingly good condition.But ofcourse these situations are taken very seriously, but still…..

  21. Julesmac

    June 1, 2018 at 3:19 am

    A few years ago travelling from Melbourne to Auckland my husband got up to go to the loo and face planted in the aisle. We were about 45 minutes into a three hour flight. As he’;d had heart troubles of course I was concerned that was the issue; however prior to setting off he’d been fine..He was moved to the back of the plane and on oxygen for the remainder of the flight.Upon landing we got the full emergency bit, carried off the plane to a waiting ambulance and straight to hospital. It turned out to be, thankfully, just massive dehydration and all was fine after a night in hospital. However it was interesting that one of the ambos asked me why I was not given the option to request the plane turning back. I have since discovered that the crew have access to medical advice but in view of my husband’s history of a heart issue the ambo said it might have been better to return to Melbourne. I’m not sure how one goes about getting crew to agree to that request! We could not however, fault Qantas’s care, concern and assistance at the time. I guess you never know when a problem will strike

  22. DirtyDan


    June 3, 2018 at 3:28 am

    The real tragedy here is that the crew honestly thoguht a seat in UA C cabin would lessen his pain…

  23. polinka

    June 7, 2018 at 7:54 am

    I think acute pancreatitis can happen without symptoms (thus the “acute”) and I feel terrible for the guy. That’s a long time to be in pain and agony. However, my sympathy is mitigated by the fact that he hired David Axelrod.

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