Zurbriggen v. Twin Hill Acquisition Co.

Citation338 F.Supp.3d 875
Decision Date04 September 2018
Docket NumberNo. 17 C 5648,17 C 5648
Parties Thor ZURBRIGGEN, Dena Catan, Haley Johnson, Lynnette Chester, Kimberly Johnson, Joseph Catan, Barbara Bell, Laura Urquhart, Doug Crumrine, Lujuan Preston, and Timothy Terry, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, v. TWIN HILL ACQUISITION COMPANY, INC. and American Airlines, Inc., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois

Charles Jacob Gower, Pro Hac Vice; Korey Arthur Nelson, Pro Hac Vice; Burns Charest LLP, New Orleans, LA, Todd Lawrence McLawhorn, Michael Matthew Chang, Stewart M. Weltman, Siprut PC, Nada Djordjevic, Boodell & Domanskis LLC, Chicago, IL, Warren T. Burns, Pro Hac Vice; Burns Charest LLP, Dallas, TX, for Plaintiffs.

Francis A. Citera, Caitlyn E. Haller, Greenberg Traurig, LLP. Larry S. Kaplan, Matthew J. Obiala, Kaplan, Massamillo & Andrews, LLC, Chicago, IL, Mark W. Robertson, Pro Hac Vice; O'Melveny & Myers LLP, New York, NY, Susannah K. Howard, Pro Hac Vice; O'Melveny & Myers LLP, San Francisco, CA, for Defendants.


John J. Tharp, Jr., United States District Judge

American Airlines, Inc. ("American") rolled out a new line of uniforms for its worldwide workforce in late 2016. What it hoped would be a seamless transition was anything but. According to the amended complaint, the new uniforms created a plague of health problems for American's workforce; within weeks, employees across the company reported developing skin rashes, respiratory problems, vertigo, and other ailments. The number of complaints supposedly grew so large so quickly that American backpedaled on the rollout two months later and permitted employees to revert back to their old uniforms. Within a year, the airline announced that it would cut ties with the uniform manufacturer, Twin Hill Acquisition Company, Inc. ("Twin Hill"). In the aftermath of the rollout, eleven American employees filed suit against their employer and Twin Hill on behalf of themselves and all other American employees who have been exposed to the uniforms. Plaintiffs contend that both defendants are liable for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and that Twin Hill also is liable in negligence and products liability. Plaintiffs individually seek damages and on behalf of the class seek injunctive relief, including an order requiring Twin Hill to recall the uniforms it has provided to American employees and directing both companies to establish a medical monitoring fund to mitigate any possible long-term health effects to class members. American and Twin Hill responded to the amended complaint by filing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Twin Hill also filed a motion strike all class allegations under Rule 12(f) and Rule 23. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants American's motion to dismiss but denies Twin Hill's motions to dismiss and strike.


In around September 2016, American implemented a uniform change across its worldwide workforce. Am. Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 14.1 Flight attendants, pilots, other cockpit crew members, and service representatives were required to set aside their old blue uniforms in favor of new grey uniforms manufactured by Twin Hill. Id. ¶ 2, 33. The uniform change was American's first in almost thirty years and was the product of several years of planning and development. Id. ¶ 33. The change proved to be short lived.

Shortly after the companywide rollout—"within weeks if not days"—American employees began experiencing adverse reactions to the new uniform. Id. ¶ 27. The reactions included skin rashes, ear and throat irritation, headaches, fatigue, vertigo, the triggering of various auto-immune conditions, and negative effects on endocrine and liver functions. Id. ¶ 4. The reports of adverse reactions swelled in the months that followed, so much so that two of the unions representing American flight attendants set up special task forces to address the health issues posed by the uniforms. Id. ¶ 56.

American had learned of similar reports prior to the rollout. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. Twin Hill had supplied uniforms to Alaska Airlines ("Alaska") in 2011. Id. ¶ 29. However, Alaska was forced to transition to a different vendor after almost one-third of its flight attendants reported adverse health conditions akin to those later experienced by American employees. Id. Moreover, two years before American introduced Twin Hill uniforms to its workforce, American asked a number of pilots to field test the uniforms. Id. ¶ 28. Many of those pilots reported experiencing ill effects during testing, including rashes, flu-like symptoms, headache, vomiting, and respiratory problems. Id. When those adverse reactions came to light, one of the unions representing American pilots asked American not to introduce the uniforms. Id. The union's request went unheeded. Id.

In early October 2016, about a month after American switched to Twin Hill uniforms, the airline "formally recognized" the health concerns posed by the uniforms. Id. ¶ 62. In doing so, American established a call center to address individual complaints about the uniforms and offered employees who had been adversely affected to either order replacement garments or continue wearing their old blue uniform. Id. ¶ 63. American also agreed to perform "further random testing of garments" to determine the cause of the reported symptoms. Id. A month later, in November 2016, American went a step further and announced a reversal of the uniform change. Id. ¶ 79. The airline permitted employees to obtain new grey uniforms manufactured by a company other than Twin Hill or go back to wearing their old blue uniforms. Id. ¶¶ 79-80.2

Despite these accommodations, health problems continued among American employees. After the November 2016 announcement, "thousands" more employees reported adverse reactions, many of whom had never worn a Twin Hill uniform. Id. ¶ 83. Some employees also reported an increase in the severity of their symptoms. Id. ¶ 82. The problem, according to the amended complaint, is that these employees have been required to work alongside others who are still wearing Twin Hill uniforms—often in close quarters in aircraft cabins that utilize closed air systems that re-circulate air. Id. ¶¶ 51, 82. An estimated 25-30% percent of American employees are "reactors"; that is, they are individuals who become ill through direct contact with, or being in close proximity to, the Twin Hill uniforms. Id. ¶ 84.3

Following these developments, on June 22, 2017, American announced in a letter to employees that it was terminating its relationship with Twin Hill as of 2020. Id. ¶ 87. The letter, which was signed by several American senior vice presidents, stated that "[i]t is clear we [American] need a long-term solution because the current approach simply does not work." Id. By September 2017, Twin Hill had shipped over 1.4 million garments and accessories to more than 65,000 American employees worldwide. Id. ¶ 85. The garments had been manufactured in a number of countries throughout the world, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Id. ¶ 76. Between September 2016 and September 2017, over 4,700 flight attendants and over 600 pilots, in addition to other cockpit crew members and service representatives, reported experiencing ill effects from Twin Hill uniforms. Id. ¶¶ 4, 57, 85. The introduction of the Twin Hill uniforms was the only single common event that occurred throughout American's workforce during that timeframe. Id. ¶ 30.

Testing has been conducted on some of the uniform pieces manufactured by Twin Hill for American. Results from those tests indicate that Twin Hill uniforms are manufactured from synthetic materials and contain "[d]etectable amounts" of several chemicals, including known and possible carcinogens, as well as chemicals known to cause the type of "auto-immune" conditions experienced by American employees. Id. ¶¶ 52, 70-74. For example, testing detected the presence of chlordane, a potent carcinogen that is banned in the United States and is known to cause migraines, respiratory problems, immune system problems, blurry vision, confusion, and intractable seizures. Id. ¶ 71. Test results also identified the presence of formaldehyde, another known carcinogen that is widely used in industrial applications. Id. ¶ 74. Chronic long-term exposure to formaldehyde by inhalation can cause a wide array of health problems ranging from skin rashes and respiratory problems to fatigue and even cancer

. Id. Moreover, testing has shown that levels of two other chemicals exceed limits established by OEKO-TEX, an independent testing certification service that sets standards for allowable amounts of chemicals in clothing. Id. ¶ 53. The excess amounts were found in several of the most commonly worn clothing items among American employees, including the suiting skirts. Id. ¶¶ 53, 75.

In September 2017, eleven American employees filed the present suit against American and Twin Hill. Plaintiffs include seven flight attendants, three pilots, and one service representative who work for American in locations across the country. Id. ¶¶ 13-24. Each plaintiff alleges that he or she was issued Twin Hill uniforms in connection with the companywide rollout in September 2016. Id. ¶ 37. Each plaintiff further alleges that he or she has experienced "adverse reactions" while wearing Twin Hill uniforms or being near others who are wearing the uniforms. Id. ¶¶ 38-48. Finally, plaintiffs allege that, along with thousands of other American employees, they have been "caught in a nightmarish ‘Groundhog Day’—a never ending cycle of (a) going to work, (b) experiencing debilitating symptoms of headaches, fatigue, respiratory problems, vertigo and rashes as of result of working in and around [the uniforms], (c) leaving work and starting to recuperate, (d) only to repeat this again when they return to work." Id. ¶ 49...

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