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Worker, airline settle suit over 9/11 trauma

United accused of wrongful firing

Email|Print| Text size + By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / January 17, 2008

A former United Airlines flight attendant who narrowly missed being on one of the hijacked jets that crashed into the World Trade Center has settled a federal lawsuit that accused the airline of wrongfully firing her after she was unable to work because of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Deborah Jackson of Plaistow, N.H., had worked for United Airlines out of Logan International Airport for 17 years when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, according to the suit. She reached a settlement with the airline under terms that were not disclosed in papers filed yesterday in US District Court in Boston.

Her lawyer, Lora M. McSherry of Haverhill, would not discuss the settlement because of a confidentiality agreement with the airline, said an assistant to McSherry. A lawyer for United Airlines, Sarah N. Turner of Boston, also declined to comment.

Jackson was a regular flight attendant on United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles and won praise from her employer and passengers, according to the suit. She said in a brief interview last night that she was scheduled to work on that flight the day after the attacks.

After Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, killing many close friends and colleagues, Jackson "suffered extreme guilt, grief, and stress" and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the suit said.

She accepted an offer of a furlough from the airline because it was too difficult to return to work, the suit said. On Aug. 31, 2005, United Airlines informed her that it was recalling her from the furlough, and she agreed to return.

But she immediately became "paralyzed with fear" and was unable to complete training courses and resume her duties, the suit said. Her conduct was "contrary to her outstanding performance" before Sept. 11 and illustrated how the disaster had affected her, according to the lawsuit.

Jackson repeatedly asked United Airlines to continue her furlough or make other accommodations for her, but the airline refused and wrongfully fired her in November 2005, the suit said.

The following year, she recovered from post-traumatic stress disorder and asked the airline to rehire her, but it would not, said the suit.

The suit, initially filed in Suffolk Superior Court in October and transferred to federal court the following month, sought at least $100,000 in damages.

United Airlines informed the federal court last month that it was in settlement talks with Jackson and asked for an extension to respond to the complaint. On Monday, lawyers for both sides told the court they had reached a settlement, according to court papers. The suit can be reopened within two months if the terms are not met.

After Sept. 11, there were numerous reports across the country of flight attendants suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. There was also other litigation.

In 2003, a New Jersey appellate court ruled that Kim Stroka could not receive workers' compensation for the emotional distress she said she suffered after trading shifts with a co-worker on United Airlines Flight 93, which terrorists hijacked after takeoff from Newark. The plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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