Friday, December 2, 2011

Airline food kills passenger. Maybe, but I don't think so,

In May of this year, a man named Othon Cortes died while flying from Barcelona to Miami. His family has filed suit against American Airlines. They claim he died of food poisoning acquired on the Barcelona to New York leg of the trip. He became ill at JFK airport and subsequently died before the plane diverted to Norfolk, Va.

Their lawyer says the death was caused by a chicken dinner tainted with Clostridium perfringens provided by the airline. The victim was said to have suffered “sharp stomach cramps and sudden thirst and other clear outward manifestation of severe physical illness."

I have a lot of problems with the way this poor man’s demise is being handled.

First the media. Here’s the way the Consumerist, an arm of Consumer Reports and a popular tweeter delivered the news.
And here are the headlines from some well-known news sources.

USAToday: Lawsuit: In-flight meal led to AA flier's death
CNN: Family: In-flight meal killed flier
Gizmodo: Airplane Food Finally Kills Someone, Says Lawsuit
DailyMail (UK): American Airlines sued after man DIES after in-flight meal [DIES is the way they printed it.]

To be fair, the articles use terms like “allegedly” but the reporters apparently did not ask many questions.

For example, did anyone else on the plane get sick? It is doubtful that food poisoning would have occurred in just one of say 200 passengers.

The death occurred in May. I would assume there was an autopsy. What were the findings?

Just how lethal is food poisoning due to Clostridium perfringens?

I don’t know the answers to the first two questions but I do know something about Clostridium perfringens. According to the CDC, “Persons infected with C. perfringens develop watery diarrhea and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours (typically 8-12).” He would likely have diarrhea at some point. There was no mention of diarrhea in Mr. Cortes’s case. And the CDC says: “C. perfringens is one of the most common causes of foodborne illness in the United States. It is estimated that it causes nearly a million cases of foodborne illness each year.” 

So how common is death in this type of food poisoning? Not very. Wikipedia: “Very rare, fatal cases of clostridial necrotizing enteritis (also known as pigbel) have been known to involve "Type C" strains of the organism, which produce a potently ulcerative β-toxin. This strain is most frequently encountered in Papua New Guinea.” The FDA: “The disease generally lasts 24 hours. In the elderly or infirm, symptoms may last 1-2 weeks. Complications and/or death only very rarely occur.”


But it makes a much more interesting story if an inflammatory headline is used, doesn’t it?


Guy McCardle said...

It must have been a slow news day. Knowing very little about the case, I would think the unfortunate flier was either at death's door when he ate the allegedly bad chicken or he died secondary to a totally unrelated process. Most likely the latter. It would be interesting to know what was found at autopsy.

--Guy The Inconvenient Truth

Skeptical Scalpel said...

I agree. I doubt it was food poisoning.

Anonymous said...

Yet American Airlines will most likely settle out of court to avoid a lawsuit. Another one in the "Win" column for the trial lawyers.

Skeptical Scalpel said...


Thanks for commenting. I'm not so sure the airline will settle. It's going to be hard to prove it was food poisoning. And there is such a thing as contributory negligence. The airline did not force the passenger to fly on that second leg. He could have gone to a hospital after landing at JFK. I hope I can get some follow-up on this.

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.