Court holds that airline met applicable standard of care in disabled passenger slip and fall case

Elassaad v. Independence Air, Inc. (E.D. Pa. Aug. 20, 2008).  After a domestic flight, the passenger “fell down the airplane’s stairway” while disembarking from the aircraft.  At the time of the fall, the passenger “had an above-the-knee amputation of his right leg and relied on two crutches to walk” but did not use a wheelchair.  The fall caused the passenger to suffer a shoulder injury.

Independence Air moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it had met the applicable standard of care, which it asserted was set forth in 14 C.F.R. § 382.39(a).  That regulation provides as follows:  “Carriers shall provide assistance requested by or on behalf of qualified individuals with a disability, or offered by air carrier personnel and accepted by qualified individuals with a disability, in enplaning and deplaning.”  The airline contended that, under this regulation, it would have been obligated to provide the passenger with assistance only if (i) he had asked for it, or (ii) a flight crew member had offered him assistance and he had accepted such offer.

In opposition to the summary judgment motion, the passenger asserted that the applicable standard of care was set forth in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a), a more general regulation that applies only where no specific regulation governs.  Section 91.13(a) provides as follows:  “No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

The court agreed with the airline that the more specific standard of care applied to the facts of the case.  Because the passenger had admitted that, before his fall, he had not asked for assistance in deplaning and had not been offered any assistance, the court held that the airline had met the applicable standard of care.  The court also held that because the passenger did not use a wheelchair, the airline had no obligation to inform him that a ramp and wheelchair were available to transport him from the aircraft.  Accordingly, the court granted the airline’s motion.

Update:  On May 12, 2010, the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.  The Third Circuit held that state law negligence principles, rather than any federal regulation, provided the applicable standard of care in the case.  The appeals court reasoned that, because there is no indication that Congress or the FAA intended to regulate airlines’ assistance of passengers during disembarkation, federal statutes and regulations did not preempt the state law standard of care.

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