Boeing whistleblower John Barnett found dead

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A former Boeing employee who raised quality-control and safety concerns over the company’s aircraft production was found dead this week, according to authorities in South Carolina.

John Barnett, 62, was a quality manager who retired in 2017 after several decades with the company. He died March 9 of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Charleston County coroner’s office said in a statement. The Charleston City Police Department is investigating, it added.

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

At the time of his death, Barnett was due to wrap up the final day of depositions ahead of a June trial date in a whistleblower case he filed against Boeing in 2017, alleging that the company retaliated against him for raising concerns about production issues.

Barnett failed to show up at 10 a.m. Saturday for the deposition and didn’t answer calls to his mobile and hotel room, according to Robert M. Turkewitz, one of Barnett’s lawyers. Hotel employees located Barnett in his orange pickup truck in the hotel’s parking lot, Turkewitz added.

“We are shocked and devastated by what happened,” Turkewitz said. “As a lawyer, nothing prepares you for something like this.”

The Federal Aviation Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whistleblower death compounds bad news for Boeing

Barnett originally filed the retaliation complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in January 2017. After nearly four years, the agency concluded that there was no retaliation, a decision Barnett later appealed. His case has been pending since then, as the two sides have gone through discovery and prehearing motions. Boeing’s motion to dismiss the claim was denied in 2022.

Seven years, one whistleblower expert said, is a long time for an administrative proceeding on a whistleblower case when a hearing on the merits of the claim had not even been scheduled.

“Whistleblower retaliation cases can be extremely challenging and stressful, but lengthy delays can worsen the negative impact on the complainant,” said David Colapinto, founding partner of the whistleblower law firm Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto in D.C. “Prolonged litigation of whistleblower retaliation claims that allege loss of career and employment is a life-changing event that can result in profound personal consequences on the whistleblower and their families.”

The Labor Department, which handled Barnett’s complaint, should address the multiyear delay that occurred in this case, said Colapinto, who has handled whistleblower retaliation cases for more than 35 years. Doing so, Colapinto said, can “alleviate extreme hardship and burdens that individual whistleblowers bear in these cases and to protect the flying public.”

In a May 2022 order, an administrative law judge denied Boeing’s motion to dismiss Barnett’s amended complaint, saying he had alleged sufficient details to support a claim that he was subjected to a “hostile work environment” and “constructive discharge.” He alleged that he was subjected to pervasive retaliation and harassment as a result of his whistleblowing and that Boeing made working conditions so intolerable that it caused him to retire early. As a result of the alleged harassment and retaliation, Barnett claimed, he suffered “severe stress” that led him to take medical leave and early retirement.

After midair failure, critics ask: Did Boeing learn from Max crashes?

In orders last fall and winter holding Boeing to deadlines to turn over evidence in the case, the judge suggested the company was foot-dragging, saying its efforts to identify records of other retaliation complaints by workers at its Charleston plant “are woefully lacking” and its claim that it had complied with earlier orders “disingenuous, at best.”

In a 2019 New York Times article, Barnett was one of several whistleblowers who raised quality issues at Boeing’s South Carolina plant, where the company builds its 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Barnett said he had discovered clusters of metal shavings left near electrical systems for flight controls, which he said could have “catastrophic” results if the shavings penetrated the wiring.

Barnett said he repeatedly raised his concerns to his supervisors but was ignored and instead transferred to another part of the plant. In 2017, the FAA issued a directive requiring that 787s be cleared of shavings before delivery, according to the article.

A Boeing spokesman told the New York Times that safety issues are “immediately investigated and changes are made whenever necessary.”

Later in 2019, Barnett told the BBC that he had also uncovered problems with the aircraft’s oxygen systems, which could mean some breathing masks would not work in an emergency, and that workers under pressure to meet production targets had installed substandard parts on planes. Boeing denied the allegations.

Boeing is under fresh scrutiny after a door plug blew out midflight on an Alaska Airlines-operated 737 Max 9 in January. The blowout was linked to loose bolts and led the FAA to ground all Boeing 737 Max 9 planes with a door plug.

Last week, the FAA said its six-week audit prompted by the incident had identified several issues of noncompliance in areas including Boeing’s manufacturing-process control and its parts handling. The agency said it has halted production expansion of the Boeing 737 Max and has given the company 90 days to come up with a plan to fix the issues.

Boeing’s 737 Max jets were previously grounded in 2019 when software forced down the noses of two new planes in a way their pilots could not overcome, causing two crashes that killed 346 people.

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