GRAND RAPIDS (WWJ) – A Michigan woman is suing an international airline after she was stuck with a hypodermic needle hidden in a seatback pocket, forcing her to take powerful drugs used to help combat against the transmission of the AIDS virus.

Attorney Mark Kelly Schwartz said his client, a Grand Rapids-area woman identified only as Jane Doe, was on an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to Chicago on Aug. 6 when the incident happened.

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According to the complaint, the woman was flying with her 11-year-old daughter when a knob holding the tray table up on the seat in front of her broke. The woman asked to switch seats, but a flight attendant said that wasn’t possible and told the woman she would have to sit through the remainder of the roughly 14-hour flight with the tray table down.

At some point during the flight, the woman noticed the broken knob on the floor and placed it into the seatback pocket in front of her daughter, since the pocket in front of her was blocked by the open tray table.

As the airplane was preparing to land, a flight attendant informed Jane Doe “she would have to move to another seat for landing due to her tray table in the open position.”

“Out of the kindness of her heart and just being a nice person, she reached into that seatback pocket to retrieve the piece of the tray table and she was punctured by a needle,” Schwartz told WWJ Legal Analyst Charlie Langton. “She stuck her hand out and there was blood on her finger. They looked inside the seatback and there was a hypodermic needle with a syringe attached that was found in that seatback pocket.”

Click here to read the complaint (.pdf format)

Schwartz said all the blame lies with the airline, which never offered Jane Doe any medical attention. Schwartz said the airline was apparently more focused on profits than passenger safety.

“When you look at this in a larger context, this is a mistake by the airline. This is clearly a mistake. It’s a failure of an airline to spend the time and the money to adequately clean an aircraft cabin. My client is an innocent victim of that,” he said. “The airline had a duty to clean the seat and the cabin adequately. I would say that leaving a hypodermic needle and not finding it on a routine cleaning is the airline’s responsibility.

“We don’t know how long that needle had been on this airplane, sitting in that seatback pocket, un-cleaned by the flight crew. And the airline has not informed her that they’ve done any kind of investigation trying to determine who may have left this needle,” he continued.

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Schwartz said the incident is in direct violation of the Montreal Convention, which states that “an airline is liable anytime there is a physical injury external to a passenger aboard an airplane.” As such, Schwartz has filed a lawsuit against Etihad Airways on the woman’s behalf, saying she’s traumatized over the possibility of contracting HIV, hepatitis or some other disease.

“This has impacted many aspects of her life. She has a young child and, you know, things that you and I would consider normal to do with children, for example sharing a piece of food, she can’t do because she’d not certain whether she’s contracted a disease. She’s living in fear,” he said.

Adding to her fears, Schwartz said the woman doesn’t yet know if she contracted a disease from the needle. He said the woman’s doctor placed her on a regimen of powerful drugs used to help combat against the transmission of the AIDS virus.

“Right now, we don’t know. But we hope and we pray that she is going to, after 12 months of living with this, be tested and not have the HIV virus, not have hepatitis. We’ll let the jury decide, ultimately, what 12 months of living in fear, 12 months of this looming in the back of her mind, is worth,” he said.

Even if she’s not diagnosed with anything, Schwartz said they still have a case.

“You have a physical injury sustained by Mrs. Doe, coupled with the mental anguish, the daily thoughts of these viruses occurring inside her body. So, you do have a case,” he said.

The airline has denied responsibility and promised Schwartz they’ll fight the lawsuit.

“The court has ordered them to answer the complaint by mid-December,” he said.

Schwartz added that it was important to file to complaint without the woman’s name to protect her reputation.

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“We requested that the lawsuit proceed under a pseudonymous status, allowing the court to refer to her as Jane Doe in all public records, and the court agreed with our request, because of the social stigmatization of exposure to the HIV virus. Again, this is an extraordinarily private person who has unfortunately been exposed, because of the airline’s negligence, to a life-altering illness,” he said.