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.


Court denies passenger recovery against airline for loss of itinerant robot head

June 30, 2008

Hanson v. America West Airlines, Inc. (C.D. Cal. Mar. 29, 2008).  Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction or even science fiction.  The passenger in this case, a roboticist, sued the airline for the loss of “an artistically and scientifically valuable robotic head modeled after famous science fiction author Philip K. Dick.”  According to the court, “Dick’s well-known body of work has resulted in movies – such as Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly, and a large group of admirers has grown following his death in Orange County, California, in 1982.”

The passenger was traveling from Texas to San Francisco with a connection in Las Vegas.  He lost his head by leaving it in an overhead compartment when he departed the aircraft in Las Vegas to catch his flight to San Francisco.  According to the passenger, the airline found the head and promised to deliver it to him San Francisco, but the head never showed up.  The passenger claimed that he and his head have never come face to face again.  As damages, the passenger sought the value of the head, which he put at $750,000.

The airline moved for summary judgment on the grounds that its contract of carriage, which provided that the airline “assumes no responsibility or liability for baggage, or other items, carried in the passenger compartment of the aircraft,” barred any recovery by the passenger.  The court agreed with the airline, rejecting the passenger’s arguments that (i) the airline materially deviated from the original contract of carriage, and (ii) the airline employee who promised the passenger that the head would be delivered to him in San Francisco had altered the original contract of carriage, causing the airline to become liable for the loss of the head.  The court also held that even if the airline employee had had the authority to alter the contract of carriage, the passenger had presented no evidence that the airline had breached the altered contract, pointing out that the airline “may have done everything as promised, only to fall victim to a head hunting thief or other skullduggery.”

Obviously having fun, and clearly unable to restrain himself, the judge concluded the opinion as follows:  “The Court must GRANT Defendant’s Motion.  But it does so hoping that the android head of Mr. Dick is someday found, perhaps in an Elysian field of Orange County, Dick’s homeland, choosing to dream of electric sheep.”


Court holds that no implied ACAA private right of action exists

May 9, 2008

Wright v. American Airlines, Inc. (E.D. Mo. Mar. 3, 2008).  The plaintiff filed suit for herself and her minor son against American, alleging that her son was injured because he was denied accommodations for his disability, osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as “Brittle Bone Disease,” while traveling on American’s flights.  She alleged a cause of action under the federal Air Carrier Access Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41705, which prohibits airlines from discriminating against disabled persons, as well as various state law causes of action.  According to the plaintiff, DOT had determined that American had violated the ACAA with respect to its treatment of her son by failing to provide timely lift assistance and accurate information as to the aircraft’s accessibility.

American moved to dismiss the ACAA count on the grounds that an individual has no private right of action to enforce the ACAA.  The ACAA does not expressly provide a private right of action.  American contended that the ACAA’s comprehensive administrative enforcement scheme, which gives DOT the power to force compliance with the ACAA, to revoke an airline’s carrier certificate and to impose fines, indicates that Congress did not implicitly intend to provide individuals with a private right of action to enforce the ACAA.

The court agreed with American.  Although the Eighth Circuit had concluded in a 1989 case that an implied private right of action to enforce the ACAA did exist, the Supreme Court had adopted a new test in Alexander v. Sandoval, a 2001 case, that restricted the circumstances under which a court may determine that a implied private right of action exists under a federal statute.  Siding with other post-Sandoval cases, the court held that the ACAA does not provide a private right of action, reasoning that the statute’s extensive administrative enforcement scheme suggested that Congress “intended to preclude alternative means of enforcing the statute.”  Accordingly, the court dismissed the ACAA count.


Airline obtains reversal of passenger jury verdict in refusal to transport case

February 11, 2008

Cerqueira v. American Airlines, Inc. (1st Cir. (Mass.) Jan. 10, 2008).  As previously reported, in December 2003, American Airlines removed three passengers, a man of Portuguese national origin and two Israelis seated nearby, from an aircraft at the departure gate in Boston for questioning by state police officers.  After the questioning, the airline declined to rebook them on another flight to Ft. Lauderdale.

The passenger of Portuguese national origin filed a lawsuit against the airline.  He alleged that airline personnel removed him from the aircraft and then refused to provide him service solely because of his perceived national origin, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and a Massachusetts antidiscrimination statute.  The airline alleged that the passengers had been removed for questioning and then refused service solely due to security concerns based on their alleged unusual behavior before and during the boarding process.

After a six-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the passenger, assessing compensatory damages of $130,000 and punitive damages of $270,000.  After the trial court denied American’s motions for a JNOV and a new trial, American appealed.

Only two months after the appeal was argued, the First Circuit issued an opinion reversing the trial court’s judgment and remanding the case to the district court with instructions to enter judgment for American.  The First Circuit’s opinion centered on 49 U.S.C. § 44902, entitled “Refusal to transport passengers and property,” which provides in section (b) as follows:  “Permissive Refusal. – Subject to regulations of the Under Secretary, an air carrier, intrastate air carrier, or foreign air carrier may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety.”

American had requested that the trial judge give a series of jury instructions regarding section 44902(b), including the well-established standard for liability that the jury must return a verdict for the airline unless its actions with respect to the passenger were “arbitrary or capricious.”  The judge refused to give the requested instructions.  The First Circuit held that the omitted instructions “were essential to the case” and the trial court had erred by refusing to give them.

The First Circuit also held that the instructions that were given were erroneous.  The most serious error was that the trial judge had instructed the jury that American had the burden of proving that its reasons for removing the passenger were legitimate.  The appeals court held that, in a section 44902(b) case, it is the passenger who has the burden of proof, and the passenger must prove that the airline’s conduct was arbitrary or capricious.

Update:  On February 29, 2008, the First Circuit denied the passenger’s petition for rehearing en banc.  Two judges dissented from the denial of the petition.  On October 6, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the passenger’s petition for a writ of certiorari.


Court partially grants airline motion to dismiss injured passenger’s complaint

January 29, 2008

Levy v. Continental Airlines, Inc. (E.D. Pa. Oct. 1, 2007).  During a flight from Houston to Philadelphia, the passenger was injured when a large ceramic bowl fell from a broken or improperly closed overhead compartment and struck her head.  The passenger filed a lawsuit against the airline, alleging that it had negligently violated duties of care established by Pennsylvania statutory and common law and by federal regulations.

Continental moved to dismiss on the grounds that the passenger’s state law claims were preempted by the Federal Aviation Act and that the federal regulations she cited were not applicable to the case.  The court granted part, and denied part, of the motion.  The court agreed that the Federal Aviation Act preempted the state laws pled by the passenger because the Act completely preempts state standards of care in the field of aviation safety.

As to the passenger’s claims based on federal regulations, the court held that the complaint contained sufficient factual allegations to state a cause of action for violation of the standards established in 14 C.F.R. §§ 121.589 and 125.589, which deal with carriage of cargo in the passenger cabin and crewmember training.  But the court dismissed the passenger’s claims based on 14 C.F.R. §§ 25.787 and 25.853, which establish aircraft design and manufacturing standards of care, because the airline only operated the aircraft and had nothing to do with its design or manufacture.


Court considers “single operation” issue in baggage case

August 30, 2007

Gerard v. American Airlines, Inc. (Conn. Super. July 12, 2007).  After the passenger filed a lawsuit against American for lost baggage damages, the airline moved for partial summary judgment on the grounds that its damages were limited by the Montreal Convention.  The passenger argued that his damages were not limited by the Convention because the flight at issue, from Los Angeles to New York (following a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles on a different airline earlier the same day), constituted domestic travel rather than “international carriage” covered by the Convention.

Article 1 of the Convention addresses the scope of its application.  Article 1(1) provides that the Convention “applies to all international carriage of persons, baggage or cargo performed by aircraft for reward,” as well as “to gratuitous carriage by aircraft performed by an air transport undertaking.”

Article 1(2) defines “international carriage” as “any carriage in which, according to the agreement between the parties, the place of departure and the place of destination, whether or not there be a break in the carriage or a transhipment, are situated either within the territories of two States Parties, or within the territory of a single State Party if there is an agreed stopping place within the territory of another State, even if that State is not a State Party.  Carriage between two points within the territory of a single State Party without an agreed stopping place within the territory of another State is not international carriage for the purposes of this Convention.”

Article 1(3) provides that “[c]arriage to be performed by several successive carriers is deemed, for the purposes of this Convention, to be one undivided carriage if it has been regarded by the parties as a single operation, whether it had been agreed upon under the form of a single contract or of a series of contracts, and it does not lose its international character merely because one contract or a series of contracts is to be performed entirely within the territory of the same State” (emphasis added).

To decide the question of whether the flight at issue was governed by the Convention, the court attempted to determine if the parties had regarded it as part of a “single operation.”  To do this, the court tried to analyze the ticket at issue and the passenger’s overall itinerary as “objective” evidence of the parties’ intent.  However, the court was unable to do so because neither party had submitted authenticated copies of the ticket or evidence regarding American’s awareness of the passenger’s international itinerary at the time he bought his ticket.  Accordingly, the court denied American’s motion for partial summary judgment.

Note:  How does a court determine whether an airline “regarded” a passenger’s carriage as a single operation?  One way is through the passenger’s travel agent, if one was used.  The agent’s knowledge of the passenger’s “travel intentions” is “imputed to the carrier.”  Robertson v. American Airlines, Inc. (D.C. Cir. 2005).


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