Can this trip be saved? Flight attendant spills boiling water on my hand

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By Christopher Elliott

Tea time didn’t go as planned for Star Rivera.

On a recent Virgin America flight, an attendant accidentally spilled hot water on her hand, she says. Accidents like this happen all the time — in fact, I’m surprised they don’t happen more often, with all the turbulence planes encounter — but she needs to know what to do next.

Navigating turbulence

I’ll get to the specifics of her case in a moment. But first, a few words about mishaps that occur when you travel by air. There’s no easy way to know where to turn when something goes wrong, and it all depends on what phase of your trip you’re in. If you’re at a screening area, and you slip and fall, it could be the TSA’s jurisdiction. At the gate? That’s the airport. On the plane? Start with the airline.

Every airline has a special department for claims. In Virgin America’s case, it’s referred to as “guest care.” Details are in its contract of carriage (PDF).

Here’s Rivera’s story: Late last year, she was flying on Virgin America with her nine-year-old stepdaughter.

About two hours before the flight was over, I ordered a hot tea. The flight attendant came and brought the tea, but instead of handing it across the front, he handed it to me over head. I was in the center seat in a three-seat row.

The hot tea was in a styrofoam cup that was then placed in one of the plastic cold drink cups. I assume it’s to account for spillage. However, the cup doesn’t rest in the other cup flat. It’s kind of tilted.

In any case, as the cup was “handed” to me the flight attendant released before it was actually in my hand, and as a result, I had to “catch” the cup over my head and as a result of that, the boiling hot water spilled on my hand.

A burned hand and cold comfort

Ouch! Rivera had no place to go, so she says she sat in her seat while the hot liquid burned her hand.

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The flight attendant did not react quickly, and when he did finally walk away, it was only to return with another tea, after I had obviously been burned.

I calmly asked him if he could please bring me some ice immediately. He seemed like he was confused, but returned with the ice after some time.

Needless to say, my hand bubbled up and was clearly badly burned. He then returned with some toothpaste and told me he heard that that works on burns.

It didn’t work. I kept asking for ice, since that was the only thing that offered some relief.

At this point, a piece of skin fell off of my hand.

I then asked him if there was anything else that could be done because I was in extreme pain and trying not to faint since I was traveling with a child. He took me behind a curtain and put lidocaine cream, which I now know should never be applied to an open wound. Since the ice was the only form of relief I was getting, I just kept asking for ice until we arrived at our destination.

She visited the hospital, which diagnosed her as having second-degree burns.

The flight attendant comped a movie for my stepdaughter and me. And offered me a free drink saying that I “probably needed a drink.” I don’t really drink, so no thanks.

Flight to justice

It’s unclear if she filed an incident report, but if she did, she probably missed the 21-day deadline in the contract of carriage to make a claim. She says she’d been in touch with an attorney who is interested in taking this case. She has a year to file a claim in court.

Should she just sue Virgin America? I think I’d try that as a last resort, but working through the “guest care” department might be far more productive and less expensive. (Related: This Virgin America companion ticket credit is unusable.)

My advocacy team and I could get involved by bringing this case to Virgin America’s attention. But at the end of the process, the airline will probably insist on having all the paperwork done correctly, which would include an incident report and any medical documentation of her injuries. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

So while my involvement might expedite the process, it wouldn’t allow her to take any shortcuts.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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