Southwest can't be sued for death of passenger who Oakland flight crew thought was unruly

Southwest Airlines cannot be sued over the death of a passenger whose medical distress was mistaken for unruly behavior by a flight crew out of Oakland, a California appeals court ruled this week. 

The decision on Wednesday, reported by the Bay Area News Group, upheld an Alameda County trial court’s decision over what happened to Newport Beach resident Rich Ilczyszyn, 46 – a financial trader and CNBC contributor. 

He ended up suffering a deadly pulmonary embolism while on a flight from Oakland to Orange County on Sept. 19, 2014 – but the flight crew thought he was just being disruptive because of his odd behavior on the plane. 

His family had filed a wrongful-death suit against Southwest and the flight crew, saying Ilczyszyn died because the crew failed to give him any help. 

The trial jury returned a verdict that Southwest was negligent but that the negligence was not a substantial factor in Ilczyszyn’s death. 

That verdict was then appealed.

In his family's original wrongful death suit against the airline, his lawyer, Daniel Balaban asked jurors to award Ilczyszyn's family a total of $63 million in damages.

According to court records, flight attendants did not realize that Ilczyszyn needed any medical help – all they heard was him "grunting, growling [and] crying" and not complying with their requests to open the door. 

Southwest attorney Andrew Ryan argued that the crew deemed him a security threat.

They called sheriff's deputies to meet them when they landed.  

When authorities arrived, was Ilczyszyn had no pulse. 

He died in a hospital the following day. An autopsy stated he died of a pulmonary thromboembolism due to "deep venous thrombosis," or a blood clot.

"Diagnosing a massive pulmonary embolism on a flight was impossible and treating a massive pulmonary embolism on a flight was impossible," Ryan told the trial court jury in 2019. 

Also during that trial, witnesses for Southwest testified that it was unlikely Ilczyszyn could have survived even if the flight crew had been able to get to him. 

Southwest also claimed immunity under federal code because its employees were responding to a suspected security threat.

Bay City News contributed to this report.