United Airlines Faces Lawsuit Over Engine Failure

Filed Under: United

A couple of weeks ago United Airlines made headlines globally following a terrifying engine failure. Well, a class action lawsuit has now been filed regarding the incident.

The basics of United’s 777 engine failure

On February 20, 2021, UA328 from Denver to Honolulu suffered a major engine failure shortly after takeoff. The Boeing 777-200 had a total of 241 people onboard, including 231 passengers and 10 crew members.

The right engine caught fire shortly after takeoff, and debris fell from the sky and into neighborhoods in the suburbs of Denver. Thanks to the excellent work of the pilots, the plane landed back in Denver just under 20 minutes after it took off. Fortunately no one was hurt.

An interesting twist to the story is that the replacement aircraft United used for these passengers was a 777-200 that suffered a very similar incident a few years back.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its initial findings regarding this incident.

United faces class action lawsuit over engine failure

A class action lawsuit has been filed against United Airlines over the UA328 incident. You can find a brief write-up of the case here, and you can find the full lawsuit here. The plaintiff is seeking to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress on behalf of himself and all other passengers onboard who faced a similar situation.

The lawsuit boils down to this:

  • United has a duty to inspect and maintain its aircraft using some level of due prudence
  • It’s argued that for something this catastrophic to happen, a breach of duty has been demonstrated
  • United’s breach of duty resulted in the infliction of severe emotional distress upon passengers
  • This emotional distress was entirely foreseeable and wouldn’t have occurred without United’s breach of duty

To go into this in a bit more detail, the claim is that United Airlines was negligent in not properly inspecting fan blades, especially since a similar incident happened a few years back, and similar recommendations were made. According to the suit:

Preliminary results from an NTSB investigation into this incident indicated that it appears at least 1 engine fan blade tore off during flight due to “metal fatigue,” and in the process took at least 1 more fan blade with it, causing an “uncontained engine event.”

It is possible to inspect fan blades for metal fatigue using processes including “fluorescent penetrant inspection” and “thermal acoustic imaging,” and in fact, the NTBS ordered all planes using the same engine models to do so after the incident.

UNITED’s failure to ensure that what happened in 2018 did not happen again in 2021 is a stunning failure of reasonable safety practices by any standard.

The suit claims that as a result of this negligence, passengers suffered serious emotional distress:

Plaintiff, as well as, upon information and belief, most (if not all) passengers, reasonably feared for their life as a result of the shambled state of their airplane, starting at over 2 miles in altitude, and lasting approximately 18 minutes.

Plaintiff, as well as, upon information and belief, most (if not all) passengers, suffered physical symptoms as a result of this intense experience, including: nausea, tachycardia, shaking, symptoms of shock, and following the flight, insomnia.

Bottom line

A United Airlines 777 had a pretty terrifying engine failure, and now the airline is facing a lawsuit from passengers. I’ll be curious to see what comes of this case (assuming this isn’t settled out of court, in which case we may never find out).

I absolutely believe this incident was terrifying for passengers onboard. I’ve flown millions of miles and have experienced quite some stuff, but this would have still freaked me out.

That being said, I’m obviously no lawyer, so I’m not sure just how much legal merit there is to this case. If the investigation reveals that this incident was similar to the 2018 incident and could have been avoided with proper inspections of the fan blades, then I feel like maybe they have a case? The question is what kind of a dollar amount you can put to the emotional distress that passengers experienced.

What do you make of this United Airlines lawsuit? I’d especially love to hear from lawyers.

Comments
  1. Horrifying incident where well-trained pilots, engineering and good fortune that debris didn’t hit people on the ground resulted in no loss of life. For that, all are thankful.

    As for the lawsuit, it will eventually be settled in a few years and the lawyers will get the most money with the passengers on the plane getting a small check. United’s insurance premiums will increase. That’s America.

  2. I think it’s far fetched to present it as a class action lawsuit. I think a good judge would dismiss it and make passengers present individual lawsuits as it would be far fetched that all passengers would permanently harmed from this flight. I’m certain there are some that were deeply and to varying extents permanently effected. Certainly any passenger that did not continue on in the replacement aircraft will assert a claim. Not sure the passengers that continued on would be on solid ground.

  3. I think that the problem with this lawsuit is the pointing fingers at the wrong guy aspect. Reports have shown that Pratt and Whitney did not give anyone proper instructions on engine maintenece. Automatically pointing fingers at United for this is almost like pointing fingers at Boeing for this.

  4. @Dave. Any lawsuit is going to name United, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney as defendants. Their respective insurance companies will eventually sort out a resolution.

  5. This is one of those “Tell me you’re an American without telling me you’re an American” headlines.

  6. Given the 777 can fly for 5 hours with a single engine any passenger emotional distress is irrational and comes from a place of ignorance. This should be covered in the CoC no?

    Refunds, a $2,500 voucher, and let the attorneys pound sand.

  7. Speaking as a class action defense lawyer, I agree with EC2 – this has a snowball’s chance in hell as a class action, and even as an individual action is likely not a winner. Negligent infliction of emotional distress is hard to prove and whether a person can recover varies a lot by state. The question is if United is willing to settle for nuisance value or not.

  8. @Dave – I’m not sure I completely agree. While P&W share a lions share of the blame it’s is up to United to make sure the plane is fly able. That involves maintenance and this was a prior issue. Wasn’t there something out that said they were last checked for cracks/fissures/weakness in 2018? Seems like a long time to not check an engine but I’m not in the aviation industry so no clue.

    These passengers obviously deserve some compensation. I think it speaks more to UA that nothing has been given to date sparking this. Like someone said proactively give 2-10k per passenger and be done. With the bail out that’s like peeing in the ocean. After this I’m sure they wish they would have. It’s easy for us to state yeah whatever but we weren’t looking out the window seeing an engine on fire. We also didn’t have engine parts flying their our homes that only by luck did not strike anyone. It’s an unfortunate incident but unfortunately UA was flying the plane.

  9. Max, United Airlines is a, “Public Nuisance” although nobody got beat up and dragged off the airplane.

  10. “In March 2019, after a 2018 United engine failure attributed to fan blade fatigue, the FAA ordered inspections every 6,500 cycles. A cycle is one take-off and landing.”

    there is no negligence of United, if they simply followed FAA advisory.

  11. @Sel, D
    I might agree if this was an ordinary engine failure but this was an uncontrolled failure. First I assume a lot of passengers would have heard an explosive noise. With no view of the engine would you not be terrified? Others who could see the engine would see it burning. For those that are not ignorant the thought that debris could have damaged the wing the fuselage or vital lines would be terrifying to some degree. If not the fear that the fire could eventually damage the wing structure.

    It is not to say that any of these scenarios are common but the mere possibility would introduce some distress. I truly doubt anyone would be thinking ‘I’ll get back to my movie as we can fly for another 5 hours on one engine’

  12. @Ryan @Shawn the thing that screams unfair me is that the lawyer never mentioned Pratt and Whitney anywhere. While Pratt and Whitney was a far bigger culprit to UA328 compared to United or Boeing (thankfully the lawyer didn’t jab at Boeing though), PW went unscathed while the lawyer manipulated the storyline to place the blame squarely on United. It’s like last year when Norwegian Air filed a lawsuit and placed blame squarely on Boeing for Trent 1000 issues while Norwrgian left the real culprit (which was Rolls Royce in that case) unscathed.

  13. The legal vultures specializing in class action suits would do much better suing airlines and other transportation/hospitality businesses that refused to reimburse customers in cash for canceled trips last year. At least they could show a tangible harm.

  14. Those who are doing that this is suing the wrong guy…..I will say that, as a passenger, I purchase a ticket from United. The plane may be built by Boeing, Airbus, United, or by Joe’s Fab Shop. My contract is with United. So, United would be the one who would need to take responsibility. They can bring in other parties as needed.

  15. Sue United? The passengers should be thanking United for the well trained pilots (and ATC) for saving their lives!

  16. “Thank you United, Thank you for not crashing” The absence of a crash does not mean air travel has been safe……………..

  17. No one died. What lawsuit ?
    This reminds me of pilots narrowly miss plane in SFO while landing. What investigation there was no crash ?

  18. The only acceptable outcome is to liquidate the airline, and give every last penny to the passengers that were onboard. This is the only compensation that even comes close to alleviating the absolutely tremendous emotional distress they suffered. I am in awe of these passengers–they have suffered what has got to be the most horrific experience ever endured by a human being.

    Actually, I have been doing a lot of reading recently about what happened on the island of Saipan in WW2 after have spent 2 weeks there early last year. What the people endured who experience that (on either side) is what qualifies as truly horrific. Sadly, those folks walked away with a pat on the back if even that, while the current passengers will probably become millionaires in today’s US. Sad.

  19. I wouldn’t sign up to experience that on purpose, but the design and redundancy safety features of the aircraft and the pilot training did what they were supposed to do and safely got everyone back to the ground. Sure I can see you being nervous about getting on a plane again right away but in need of a payday for it? I don’t see it.

  20. ” a breach of duty has been demonstrated” that’s going to be really hard to prove! An airline in full compliance with all FAA and manufacturers rules.

  21. I’m not a lawyer at all, but if I had gone through that experience, I would want to sue. Certainly, that was not what I purchased my ticket for. Someone is responsible. To say I didn’t get killed so I am thankful, is a bit gross.

  22. When does it stop? Bad turbulence? Lawsuit. Rough landing? Lawsuit. Middle seat? Lawsuit. No peanuts? Lawsuit. Y’all just looking for a payday. Might as well; taxpayers just bailed the losers out….

  23. Can’t we all be happy that the outcome was good? Like other people mentioned here; Americans.. *sigh*.

  24. 1. Lets wait only until the NTSB investigation is complete and their report is available, before jumping to conclusions and filing a lawsuit. 2. Then make the litigants PROVE their damages. 3. Look to United and the FAA.

  25. That didn’t take long. UA should give them vouchers and I agree the lawyers and lead plaintiff need to pound sand where the sun doesn’t shine

  26. Agree with @EC2 and @Max. There are two legal problems with this lawsuit:

    1. *Negligent* infliction of emotional distress (as opposed to *intentional* infliction) is only valid if you can prove that a *physical* injury resulted from the emotional distress. Ordinarily, some brief period of insomnia, nausea, etc., is insufficient. To have a claim for merely negligent conduct, you need to have been so shaken by the experience that you actually develop a physical illness from it. The plaintiff would need evidence that they were so upset that they developed true physical symptoms that required long-term care by a physician, for example, long-lasting migraine headaches (a kind of physical pain). The plaintiff seems to just allege short-term nausea and some brief period of insomnia, which wouldn’t be enough.

    2. This was filed as a class action, meaning the lead plaintiff wants the court to authorize him to represent all of the other passengers on the plane. This is usually done where any one plaintiff’s injuries are not worth the cost of the fees involved in bringing the case, but where multiplying the injuries by the number of people in the class (here, the total number of passengers on the plane) might make it worthwhile. That’s very unlikely to be allowed here, though, since a class action is permitted only where every customer’s claim will succeed or fail together. Here, the lawsuit turns on whether each individual passengers developed physical injuries, so each person would need to bring their own lawsuit and prove their own damages. That won’t be worthwhile for most passengers since, as noted, it would be very difficult to prove a physical injury — and it’s not clear that you could get much money even if you could manage to prove some physical injury.

    So, all in all, they’re probably just hoping United will pay some kind of settlement to avoid bad publicity from this lawsuit — but it’s unlikely the lawsuit itself would get very far.

  27. This lawsuit will either be settled for a very low amount, which will remain undisclosed or completely thrown out. United clearly went by what the FAA put out in 2018 and had them inspected. Unless they find Gross Negligence, such as a worker intentionally overlooking a clear sign of damage (which, in most cases, you can’t with metal Fatigue in this area), the FAA pretty much protects United, as mentioned that United followed the FAA’s directions in 2018 and had used les than half of the FAA’s cycle requirement between inspections.

  28. I was on this flight with 6 other family members, including my 10 year old daughter and 15 year old son. My seat and my 10 year old daughter’s seat was right over the wing and we were starting at the blown engine on fire the entire time. My 10 year old was praying and sobbing and asking me who was going to take care of her dogs since she was about to die. We did not end up taking the next flight offered obviously due to the traumatic experience. Seems like that’s worth more than a measly credit for another flight.

  29. See? This is what happens when you take away their emotional support animals.

    Thank heaven that there were some emotional support lawyers available to step in.

  30. What is wrong with everyone? I would be thanking god and the pilots everyday that I landed safely.

  31. I’m a private pilot and an engineer. If I was a passenger, my emotional distress would be annoyance that my Hawaii vacation is delayed.

  32. Ted. Class actions can not be settled for undisclosed amounts.

    As for why he sued before the faa report. He is choosing the jurisdiction and wants in before other lawyers.

  33. Once again trial lawyers trolling the media looking for anything to sue for – outcome will be mostly their hefty attorney fees. They care less about these passengers and consumers as they pretend to be. This will get passed down in higher fares. We will all pay.

  34. I’m sure that somewhere there is an ambulance waiting to be chased by the attorneys who filed this frivolous case.

    Ultimately it will probably be Pratt and Whitney who will have to pay up. No doubt United is preparing a suit to force P&W to do just that.

  35. If I were United I wouldn’t necessarily settle, but I’d take this to trial not only because of proof of injury problems for plaintiffs but because the real culprit appears to be engine-maker P&W–unless any United maintenance negligence could be shown. I would implead P&W if they have not already been made a defendant. Don’t blame the plaintiff bar for bringing such suits; their job is to take cases, even bad ones, to see if they can get either a settlement or a sufficiently sympathetic jury for an award. Sometimes they can get a little money for their clients, and sometimes these suits even bring justice, as where provable, preventable fault is shown, with real injury. ex-captain, attorney.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.