05/18/2024

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2 Boeing whistleblowers have died in 2 months amid a series of pitched legal battles with airline manufacturers

FILE- In this Feb. 5, 2018, file photo a Boeing 737 MAX 7 is displayed during a debut for employees and media of the new jet in Renton, Wash. U.S. regulators are warning airlines to limit the use of an anti-icing system on Boeing 737 Max jets in dry air to avoid overheating engine-housing parts, which could cause them to break away from the plane. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Two Boeing-related whistleblowers have died in the past two months.

John Barnett, 62, was found dead in his car in a South Carolina hotel parking lot on March 9. The Charleston County Coroner’s Office, in comments to the BBC, said Barnett died from a “self-inflicted” wound and that law enforcement was investigating the incident.

Joshua “Josh” Dean, 45, died on April 30 in a hospital bed in Oklahoma City from a stroke and severe infection that arose out of a series of complications, including the quick onset of pneumonia over the past two weeks, according to Wichita-based ABC affiliate KAKE.

Barnett and Dean, over the past few years, had both spoken out about alleged safety defects in commercial airliners. And, in each instance, the now-dead men were taking part in legal battles related to their whistleblower allegations when they died.

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    “Boeing has a terrible record in its treatment of whistleblowers and delays in Department of Labor whistleblower cases can increase the hardships faced by whistleblowers,” Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto LLP, the Washington, D.C.-based whistleblower rights law firm representing Barnett, said in a press release issued days after his death.

    “Whistleblowers are needed,” Brian Knowles, one of Dean’s attorneys who also represented Barnett, said this week. “They bring to light wrongdoing and corruption in the interests of society. It takes a lot of courage to stand up.”

    John Barnett

    Barnett was a 32-year Boeing veteran. He worked there until retiring in 2017 under disputed circumstances.

    In 2019, the former quality control engineer and manager told the BBC that a rush to get the 787 Dreamliner out to market had resulted in the use of sub-standard parts being used and, in turn, problems with on-board oxygen systems. Barnett said the use of those parts – some of which were taken out of the trash to meet rushed deadlines – meant that as many as one in four emergency oxygen systems might fail during a flight. The company, the whistleblower said, could not account for the parts in question. Boeing disputed the claims.

    “[Boeing] identified some oxygen bottles received from the supplier that were not deploying properly,” the company said. “We removed those bottles from production so that no defective bottles were placed on airplanes, and we addressed the matter with our supplier. Every passenger oxygen system installed on our airplanes is tested multiple times before delivery to ensure it is functioning properly, and must pass those tests to remain on the airplane.”

    A Federal Aviation Administration review would go on to find at least 53 “non-conforming” parts could not be found. The regulator ordered the manufacturer to take remedial action.

    Since 2017, Barnett had been in a protracted legal battle with Boeing – beginning with an administrative complaint. He eventually filed a lawsuit, in 2021, under the AIR21 Whistleblower Protection Program, alleging a hostile work environment that led to his “constructive discharge,” several different forms of retaliation, harassment, and denigration of his character for speaking out, according to a May 2022 administrative order denying Boeing’s motion to dismiss.

    In September 2023, Barnett won a motion to compel discovery. In December 2023, another discovery motion mostly went his way.

    The final docket entry in the case stylized as John M. Barnett v. The Boeing Company occurred on Feb. 16 – a scheduling order that mandated the completion of discovery by March 30.

    In a statement after his death, Boeing said: “We are saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

    Josh Dean 

    Dean worked as a quality auditor for Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems, a company spun out of Boeing, and later Boeing itself.

    He was among the first to sound alarm bells about manufacturing defects present in the 737 MAX – two of which famously crashed in late 2018 and early 2019, killing all passengers, one of which recently suffered a panel blowout at 16,000 feet on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 as it was leaving Portland, resulting in multiple injuries.

    Dean’s allegations against Spirit – which produces sections of several different Boeing models – became public after the January blowout. He was fired in 2023 over allegations that he failed to conduct certain inspections. Dean, however, says he was fired for repeatedly attempting to raise and correct errors he saw during manufacturing.

    Dean and at least one of his former colleagues allege Spirit brass was made aware of inaccurately drilled holes in 737 fuselage components, according to the Seattle Times. Those defects, Dean alleged, resulted in unsafe products to pass inspection.

    In August 2023, Spirit announced misaligned holes after pressure bulkheads had been discovered in some 737 MAX models. Dean said he first told his supervisors about those issues in October 2022.

    “After I was fired, Spirit AeroSystems did nothing to inform the FAA and the public about their findings on the damage to the rear pressure bulkhead,” a safety complaint Dean filed with the FAA reads.

    A shareholders class action lawsuit was filed against Spirit in May 2023 alleging failure to address safety concerns has led to a massive devaluation of stock prices. The filing was updated in December 2023 – to include Dean’s allegations against the company.

    From the lawsuit, at length:

    Defendants, prior to and throughout the Class Period, emphasized the importance of the 737 MAX program to their Company, as well as their heightened sensitivity to, and personal involvement in, ensuring the quality of Spirit’s product, particularly in light of the 737’s previous failures. Defendants in various statements highlighted their refined processes, safeguards, and core competencies in safety and quality to assuage investors’ concerns about these significant issues.

    However, Defendants concealed from investors that Spirit suffered from widespread and sustained quality failures. These failures included defects such as the routine presence of foreign object debris (“FOD”) in Spirit products, missing fasteners, peeling paint, and poor skin quality. Such constant quality failures resulted in part from Spirit’s culture which prioritized production numbers and short-term financial outcomes over product quality, and Spirit’s related failure to hire sufficient personnel to deliver quality products at the rates demanded by Spirit and its customers including Boeing.

    After alerting higher-ups to design flaws, Dean said in a deposition for that lawsuit, he was taken off of the 737 group and eventually fired under the pretext of missing a different flaw during an audit.

    “According to Dean, Spirit attempted to justify his termination on demonstrably false grounds that Dean had falsified paperwork concerning his audit,” the lawsuit goes on. “Dean believes this false justification was a pretext to scapegoat and silence him, and to intimidate other Spirit employees so that they would not speak out as Dean had done about the mis-drilled bulkhead holes defect.”

    In a statement after Dean died, a Spirit spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Josh Dean’s family. This sudden loss is stunning news here and for his loved ones.”

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