In 2015, Joanna Spooner and her two children, then 11 and 9 months old, were on a QantasLink flight in Australia.
Upon boarding the plane, the pilot announced that there would be turbulence during the flight, News.com.au reports.
And there was — passengers were instructed to remain in their seats for the duration of the flight. Spooner noted that the bumps on this particular flight were rougher than usual. She recalled:
“I remember a guy was sitting opposite us, a big, burly bloke from the mines, and he was cracking jokes saying ‘I’m going to be sick’. He couldn’t handle it.”
Even after landing, the mom of two reported that her “ears hurt and felt blocked.” When she got home, she still felt like she needed to pop her ears. Her children also suffered from the pain.
As the discomfort worsened over the next few months, she was eventually diagnosed with barotrauma and a perilymph fistula in her right ear. A perilymph fistula is a condition where the “inner ear fluid leaks into the middle ear, usually as a result of trauma.” She said it was difficult for them to diagnose it:
“They took me in for emergency surgery after months and months of suffering because no one, by looking in my ear, could see the injury. They finally took a CT scan and my GP said, ‘Get to hospital’ — she thought I had a tumour or something. And they booked me straight in for surgery.”
Spooner described the pain:
“I’ve got all the vertigo, the pain; it’s in my ear but behind my ear, in my face, down my jaw and down my neck. It builds up because the hole has closed up and it builds up in my face which feels like a million different things. It’s hell.”
The mom had three surgeries in her right ear, however, she has lost her hearing as a result of the trauma.
Her two children have also experienced barotrauma from the flight. While they have both since fully recovered, Spooner’s infant took a bit longer to heal.
Spooner explained that he was in and out of the hospital for 18 weeks. When she received her own diagnosis of perilymph fistula, she knew her son was suffering more than clogged eardrums. She soon learned that her infant had a ruptured ear drum. The resulting procedure was a difficult one. She said:
“I had to sit on him and pin him to the table because they couldn’t sedate him because of his age. They didn’t realise it was that bad. With his ruptured ear drum the fluid had leaked out but it stayed in his ear and it had set and got really hard, on his newly formed ear drum.”
The stay-at-home mom is now seeking compensation from the airline. Prior to losing her hearing, Spooner ran her own business from home but has since stopped because of her injury.
A spokesperson for Qantas said:
“We’re aware of the alleged incident but we are yet to be served with any proceedings so we’re not in a position to comment.”
David Adams, an aviation law solicitor from Shine Lawyers in Sydney, said that injuries from turbulence are “not uncommon,” but were typically related to “the neck and back.” He said:
“In relation to oratory injuries, the frequency is far less unusual. These injuries arise due to irregular changes in cabin pressure.”
He added that airline is “strictly liable” for any accident occurring on the plane, but that there are several criteria an “accident” must meet before being considered as such.