Passenger’s racial discrimination claims based on airline deplaning come up short

October 29, 2014

Mercer v. Southwest Airlines Co. (N.D. Cal. Sept. 19, 2014).  In his amended complaint, the plaintiff, an African American, alleged that he and fiancée boarded the Southwest LAX-IAH flight with two carry-on bags apiece.  The plaintiff stowed his bags in an overhead compartment and then, “as a gentleman,” proceeded to do the same with one of his fiancée’s bags.  A white Southwest flight attendant told him three times that “he was over the 2 limit per person for carry-on luggage,” and he “politely explained” each time that he was assisting with his fiancée’s bag and thus was not over the limit.

According to the plaintiff, a Southwest supervisor deplaned him several minutes later, and his fiancée followed him off the aircraft.  In the gate area, the Southwest supervisor told the plaintiff that he had been deplaned because the captain “did not want plaintiff on the aircraft as he considered plaintiff to be a security threat.”  The plaintiff and his fiancée were rebooked, and traveled, on a Southwest flight to IAH later that day.

The plaintiff’s amended complaint asserted claims for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of 49 U.S.C. § 40127, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.  Southwest moved to dismiss on the grounds that the amended complaint failed to state an actionable claim.

The court granted Southwest’s motion.  The court’s key ruling was that the Federal Aviation Act preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim.  Noting that the FAA impliedly preempts the field of aviation safety and that 49 U.S.C. § 44902(b), an FAA provision, sets the standard for an airline’s refusal to transport a passenger on safety grounds, the court reasoned that the plaintiff’s negligence claim, which was based on a California statutory standard of care, directly implicated the aviation safety field because, according to the plaintiff himself, safety was the apparent basis for Southwest’s decision to deplane him.  Thus, the court held that the FAA preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because its consideration of that claim would have required that it determine whether he did indeed pose a safety threat in order to determine whether the airline’s conduct was justified.  The court held that the FAA preempted the plaintiff’s emotional distress claim for the same reasons.

The plaintiff had argued that the Southwest supervisor’s explanation regarding his removal from the aircraft on security grounds was merely a pretext for racial discrimination and that he never posed a safety threat.  In response, the court pointed out that, for purposes of FAA preemption, the critical issue was not whether the captain was correct in his belief that the plaintiff was a safety threat but that the plaintiff’s tort claims would have impermissibly required that the court evaluate the safety issue under a state law standard of care.

The court then disposed of the plaintiff’s statutory claims.  It noted that the plaintiff had withdrawn his 42 U.S.C. § 2000a claim, and it held that the plaintiff had no private right of action under 49 U.S.C. § 40127 and that he had failed to adequately state a racial discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 because he had not alleged that he was treated differently than similarly-situated white passengers on the flight.  The court granted the plaintiff leave to amend his Section 1981 claim.


Court upholds airline’s right to deplane feisty, drunk-acting passenger

October 12, 2014

Lozada v. Delta Airlines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. June 17, 2014).  The 69-year-old plaintiff eased the pain of a JFK-MIA flight delay by enjoying alcoholic drinks at two airport bars.  The plaintiff alleged that she boarded the aircraft without incident, but Delta disagreed.  According to airline personnel, the plaintiff appeared intoxicated and loudly demanded, in the gate area and on board, free drinks for the passengers as compensation for the delay.  In her seat, the plaintiff repeatedly pushed the call bell and was slurring her speech.  Delta personnel repeatedly instructed the plaintiff to calm down, to no avail.  The cabin crew notified the captain, who instructed that they request that the airport police deplane the plaintiff. The airport police removed her from the aircraft but did not charge her with any crime.

The plaintiff sued Delta in state court, alleging negligence.  After removing the case to federal court and conducting discovery, Delta moved for summary judgment.  Delta contended that the plaintiff’s claim was preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act and the Federal Aviation Act and that, even if her claim were not preempted, she had failed to state a claim for negligence under New York law.

The ADA preempts state common law negligence and most other state law claims that relate to an airline’s “service.”  The FAA grants an airline the right to “refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety.”  The plaintiff’s primary argument in opposition to Delta’s motion was that the airline was required “to demonstrate as a matter of law that the Plaintiff was intoxicated” but that it had not presented any “real proof at all of Plaintiff’s purported intoxication,” such as the result of a Breathalyzer test.

The court granted Delta’s motion.  First, the court held that the ADA preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because the airline’s deplaning of the plaintiff related to its fundamental “service” of deciding whether to transport a passenger and that such removal was not outrageous or unreasonable, particularly given that the plaintiff herself admitted during her deposition that she may have been acting like “a brute or something.”  Next, the court held that the FAA also preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because the plaintiff’s drunk-appearing conduct gave Delta’s personnel “reason to believe” that she was intoxicated and thus posed a safety risk.  The court ruled that it was “ultimately irrelevant” whether the plaintiff “was actually intoxicated.”


Conditions of carriage withstand tort claims by delayed passengers

February 1, 2012

Lavine v. American Airlines, Inc. (Md. Special App. Dec. 1, 2011).  Using aa.com, the plaintiffs bought two American Airlines tickets for roundtrip transportation originating and terminating at Reagan National Airport, with an intermediate stop at Key West International Airport.  Their outbound itinerary included a connecting flight from Miami International Airport to Key West.  They received an email confirmation that referred to, incorporated, and contained a link to, American’s Conditions of Carriage.

According to the plaintiffs, American personnel at DCA informed them that the flight to MIA was delayed.  The plaintiffs claimed that they requested seats on another flight or a refund and that they only boarded the delayed flight after having been assured by American personnel that, despite the delay, the airline “would provide” them with the connecting flight to Key West.  The plaintiffs alleged that, upon arrival at MIA, American personnel informed them that they only had 15 minutes to reach the gate for the connecting flight.  The plaintiffs asserted that they ran through the airport, inhaling construction debris along the way, but that American did not permit them to board the connecting flight because they had arrived too late.  American obtained and paid for a hotel room for the plaintiffs and gave them a stipend for dinner and breakfast.  The plaintiffs traveled to Key West on an American flight the next day.

In their lawsuit against American, the plaintiffs alleged five counts based on common law theories of negligent and intentional misrepresentation and demanded $10,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.  The plaintiffs appealed after the trial court granted the airline’s motion for summary judgment.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.  First, the appeals court held that American was entitled, under 49 U.S.C. § 41707 and 14 C.F.R. Part 253, to incorporate the Conditions of Carriage by reference, that the airline had in fact done so and that the plaintiffs’ allegation that they had not seen, or agreed to, the Conditions of Carriage did not create a genuine dispute of material fact.

The court then held that the Conditions of Carriage operated to prevent the plaintiffs from being able to prove the “false statement” and “reliance” elements of their negligent and intentional misrepresentation claims.  The court held that the plaintiffs could not prove the “false statement” element due to the limitation of liability clauses of the Conditions of Carriage, which provided as follows:  “American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight.  Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing.”

Next, the court held that the plaintiffs had failed to prove reliance on any alleged verbal representations by American personnel because Mr. Lavine, as “an experienced attorney licensed to practice law in Maryland,” could not have justifiably relied on any such representations in view of the limitation of liability clauses in the Conditions of Carriage and a clause providing that “times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.”

The court then held that the plaintiffs had failed to establish the proximate cause element of the causes of action because “it is not foreseeable that [appellants] would inhale construction debris and sustain personal injury as a result of an airline scheduling delay.”

Finally, even if the plaintiffs had been able to establish the elements of their causes of action, their claims would not have made it past 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1), the preemption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act, which provides that “a State . . . may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.”  The court held that this provision preempted the plaintiffs’ tort claims because they were “related to” American’s boarding procedures, which constituted a “service” provided by the airline.

Note:  This opinion has generated interest among non-aviation business litigators and transactional attorneys in Maryland.  In holding that the Conditions of Carriage were part of the parties’ contracts, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that, even if the Conditions were part of the contracts, there was a dispute of fact because American personnel, by their verbal statements at the airport, had modified the Conditions.  The court relied on the “non-modification” clause of the Conditions in rejecting this argument; that clause stated that “[n]o agent, employee or representative of American has authority to alter, modify or waive any provision of the Conditions of Carriage unless authorized in writing by a corporate officer of American,” and the plaintiffs had not offered proof of a corporate officer’s written modification.  Some commentators have opined that this decision appears to conflict with prior Maryland decisions holding that, despite a contractual requirement that any modifications be written, parties can nevertheless verbally modify contracts.  It appears that the more rigorous “corporate officer” written modification requirement gave the court comfort to enforce the non-modification clause in this case.


Third Circuit upholds summary judgment for airline in overbooking case

June 6, 2010

Kalick v. Northwest Airlines Corp. (3d Cir. (N.J.) Mar. 29, 2010).  Northwest bumped the customer from a flight from Kansas City to Philadelphia.  The customer responded by filing a lawsuit in federal district court, alleging that Northwest had violated 14 C.F.R. § 250.9 by failing to provide him compensation for the bumping and also asserting state common law breach of contract and fraud claims.  The plaintiff demanded compensatory and punitive damages totaling approximately $163,000.

The Third Circuit upheld the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Northwest on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case.  First, the appeals court held that federal question jurisdiction was lacking because Section 250.9 does not create a private right of action, noting that every other circuit addressing this issue had ruled in the same manner.

Next, the appeals court agreed that diversity jurisdiction was also lacking because the plaintiff had failed to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he could recover an amount exceeding $75,000 on his contract and fraud claims.  The plaintiff had demanded compensatory damages of $1,433 and punitive damages of $161,600.  The appeals court, assuming that punitive damages were recoverable (the trial court had – correctly – held that punitive damages were preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act), held that the “drastic ratio” between the punitive and compensatory damages demanded by the plaintiff “would almost certainly violate the constitution.”

Finally, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s refusal to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s state law claims, holding that the plaintiff had failed to prove the “exceptional circumstances” necessary for the exercise of such jurisdiction.

Update:  On October 4, 2010, the Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s certiorari petition.


Airline required to disclose passenger contact information, but not employee contact information, in refusal to transport case

December 28, 2008

Nathaniel v. American Airlines (D. Virgin Islands Nov. 20, 2008).  According to the passenger, airline personnel forced her off the aircraft before the domestic flight and refused to transport her because they had determined “she was too fat” and represented a safety “hazard.”  The passenger’s complaint, which set forth causes of action for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, misrepresentation, negligence and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, alleged that the conduct of the airline personnel caused her to suffer humiliation and medical injuries and that the airline was vicariously liable for such conduct.

During discovery, the passenger moved to compel the airline to disclose (i) the home addresses and telephone numbers of the employees who the airline had identified in its initial disclosures as having information about the events at issue, and (ii) the passenger manifest for the flight.  The magistrate judge denied the motion, and the passenger appealed to the district judge.

The district judge ruled that the airline was not obligated to disclose its employees’ home addresses and telephone numbers because Model Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2 prohibited the passenger’s attorneys from contacting such employees ex parte, as their conduct with respect to the passenger could be imputed to the airline for purposes of determining its liability.  As to the passenger manifest, the court ruled that, despite a federal regulation requiring that airlines keep passenger contact information confidential (14 C.F.R. § 243.9), the airline was required to produce such information subject to a protective confidentiality order.  The court reasoned that other passengers on the aircraft had apparently witnessed the incident at issue and that the passenger had no other means of obtaining their contact information, and the court took note of two other cases in which the courts had held passenger manifests to be discoverable subject to confidentiality orders.


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

October 25, 2008

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.


Passenger ground delay case is trimmed but survives

September 1, 2008

Ray v. American Airlines, Inc. (W.D. Ark. Aug. 22, 2008).  The passenger’s December 2007 flight on American from Oakland to Dallas was diverted to Austin due to weather conditions.  The passenger claims that she was confined to the aircraft in Austin against her will and that she endured “deplorable conditions” during the 11-hour ground delay.

The passenger filed a lawsuit against American, alleging causes of action for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, breach of contract and fraud.  American moved to dismiss the passenger’s claims on the grounds that they are preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act and the Federal Aviation Act and that, moreover, she failed to allege sufficient facts to state a claim under her various state common law causes of action.

The court rejected most of American’s preemption arguments.  As to the Airline Deregulation Act, the court reasoned that while an “affirmative regulation” that impacts an airline’s “business functions” would be preempted by the ADA, the passenger’s tort claims were not preempted because “allowing an individual to recover for injuries tortiously caused by a carrier does not create any such regulation.”  The court did find, however, that the ADA preempted the passenger’s claims for compensation for lodging, meals and ground transportation, since the U.S. Department of Transportation has implemented regulations requiring such compensation when flights are overbooked but not when flights are canceled for weather-related reasons.  The court also held that the ADA preempted the passenger’s breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim to the extent that it sought to enlarge the scope of the airline’s specific contractual obligations.

As to the Federal Aviation Act, which preempts the field of passenger health and safety on commercial aircraft, the court held that this statute preempted the passenger’s claims regarding the airline’s decision to divert her flight due to safety concerns but that it did not preempt her claims that are based on the airline’s conduct after the flight was diverted and on the ground in Austin.

Next, the court considered whether the passenger had stated a claim under her various state common law tort causes of action.  The court held that the passenger had properly stated claims for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence but that she had failed to state claims for breach of contract and fraud.  The court granted the passenger leave to file a second amended complaint in which she could allege additional facts to remedy the defects in her first amended complaint and add additional claims.

Note:  The court’s preemption rulings in this case are very similar to those that a California federal district court made in April 2008 in Hanni v. American Airlines, Inc.  The Hanni case involves a passenger’s claims regarding a ground delay during a December 2006 flight from San Francisco to Mobile, Alabama.  As a result of her experience, Ms. Hanni not only sued but also founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which operates www.flyersrights.com.


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