Judge Winifred Y. Smith of the Alameda County Superior Court has given final approval to a California lawsuit settlement of approximately $78,850,000 for overtime and missed meal/rest breaks by a class of 494 former and current medical flight crew employed in California by Colorado-based Air Methods Corp. Class members will receive about $100,000 each on average. A permanent injunction included in the judgment requires Air Methods to change its historic overtime and meal/rest break practices to bring them into line with California laws.
Air Methods, which was taken private in a $2.5 billion sale in 2017, is the largest U.S. air medical transport company. It operates helicopter bases across the country from which teams of highly trained flight nurses and flight paramedics are dispatched, sometimes to remote areas. “They save lives at great personal risk to themselves,” said attorney James Sitkin, who represented the flight crew. “It is pretty amazing what they do in these flying emergency rooms, even more so now with the added challenges of treating COVID patients in the cramped quarters of a helicopter.”
Flight crew commonly work 24-hour shifts during which they must stay at the helicopter base and be ready to scramble on a moment’s notice. Until the settlement Air Methods refused to pay daily overtime generally required under California law for working over 8 hours in a work day. It also did not count toward weekly overtime up to 8 of the 24 hours flight crew had to stay on base toward, calling it a “sleep period.” Finally, Air Methods did not allow flight crew to take off-duty meal or rest breaks, or pay crew extra in their absence, as California law also generally requires.
“When Loyd and Shane [the original plaintiffs] first came to me and described the company’s pay policies and that flight crew had to work unpaid extra time,” Sitkin said, “it just struck me as wrong. Here we had flight crew, after working 48 or more hours a week for Air Methods, who had to get second or third jobs to support their families.”
Judge Smith made several important decisions on legal questions of first impression that no court had previously decided. On a careful examination of legislative histories, the court distinguished rules limiting overtime and breaks for ambulance attendants from those for flight crew. The court’s permanent injunction included in the judgment requires Air Methods to pay daily and weekly overtime on all hours and restricts it from lowering hourly rates. The company’s email announcing this change for California flight crew estimates an immediate 20% jump in their pay across the state. Sitkin thinks it will be higher.
Air Methods also lost its defense that the federal Airline Deregulation Act—Carter-era legislation deregulating the airline industry and freeing it from the state price regulation that typically governs ground ambulances—excused Air Methods from following California meal/rest break law. Air Methods also lost its argument that Proposition 11, an initiative funded by the state’s largest ambulance company and passed by California voters in November 2018, limited flight crew rights to meal/rest breaks. Smith went further and found Prop 11 unconstitutional to the extent it was crafted to retroactively extinguish claims before it was passed.
The case went on for more than 7 years. The original settlement, which the court preliminarily approved at $78 million, was increased by about $850,000 when it was discovered that Air Methods had understated the actual number of class members. This settlement follows a partial settlement in 2018 of more than $4,273,000 covering the off-the-clock work claims.
The original and related follow-on action are called William Loyd Helmick, et al. vs. Air
Methods Corp., Alameda County Superior Court, case no. RG13665373, and Christopher
R. Lyons, et al. v. Air Methods Corp., U.S. District Court, Northern District of California,
case no. 3-20-cv-01700-PJH.