By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - Four Los Angeles-area schoolteachers who were doused with jet fuel dumped by a Delta Air Lines plane in the minutes before it made an emergency landing sued the airline on Friday, accusing the flight crew of negligence.
The plaintiffs say the pilot of the Delta Flight 89, which took off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Tuesday bound for Shanghai, failed to follow proper procedures in dumping thousands of pounds of fuel over a densely populated area at relatively low altitude.
A Delta spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court and seeks unspecified damages.
Dozens of children and teachers at Park Avenue Elementary School in suburban Cudahy were showered with jet fuel released by the plane as it circled back toward LAX minutes after reporting an engine problem following takeoff.
The plane, carrying 167 passengers and crew, landed safely a short time later.
City officials in Cudahy, located 16 miles east of LAX, voiced outrage over incident, in which at least 44 children and adults were treated for minor injuries.
The Federal Aviation Administration said on Wednesday the flight crew released fuel without notifying air traffic control personnel of its intent to do so.
When asked by the control tower if there was a need to dump any fuel before landing - a measure sometimes taken to lighten a plane's load in such emergencies - the pilot replied, "Negative," according to a recording of radio transmissions made public after the incident.
"We've got it back under control," the pilot is heard saying, after first reporting that the jet was experiencing a compressor stall - a disruption in air flowing through one of its jet engine compressors.
The FAA, which is investigating the incident, said a flight crew seeking to dump fuel before an emergency landing would typically be directed by air traffic controllers to a higher altitude where the fuel would essentially vaporize before reaching the ground.
The lawsuit alleges the pilot's failure to do so was an act of negligence that rained jet fuel over the plaintiffs, "coating" them in a toxic substance and leaving them distressed and physically ill.
"Their severe emotional distress includes the reasonable fear that the exposure to and ingestion of jet fuel might produce serious health consequences such as cancer in the future," the complaint says.
On the day of the incident, Delta said the fuel release was necessary "as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight," but has not addressed questions raised about the way in which the fuel dump was conducted.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)