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.”

Ninth Circuit upholds sentencing enhancement for unruly passenger

July 13, 2007

U.S. v. Gonzalez (9th Cir. (Nev.) July 3, 2007).  Just after takeoff, a passenger stood up, complained of heart problems and requested oxygen.  He then became increasingly agitated and started demanding to the flight attendants that the pilots land the aircraft.  The passenger then stated that he had a bomb and started opening overhead bins.  The flight attendants and other passengers to tried to restrain the unruly passenger, who fought back.  At that point, in the words of one witness, “all hell broke loose.”  Eventually, the passenger was restrained with plastic handcuffs and the aircraft was diverted back to the airport from which it had taken off, where the FBI arrested the passenger.

The unruly passenger pled guilty to interference with a flight crew member in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46504.  He appealed the federal district court’s decision to impose a nine-level sentencing enhancement for “recklessly endangering the safety of the aircraft and passengers” under U.S. Sentencing Guideline § 2A5.2, which is entitled “Interference with Flight Crew Member or Flight Attendant.”  The enhancement resulted in a 27-month sentence.

On appeal, the passenger argued that the enhancement did not apply because he had interfered with the flight crew and endangered the other passengers but had not endangered the aircraft itself.  The passenger contended that he had not endangered the aircraft because he neither caused it actual harm nor did he actually have a bomb with him on the aircraft.

The passenger’s arguments were too far-fetched for even the liberal Ninth Circuit.  The court sensibly reasoned that because “an aircraft is a captive, closed environment in which the safety of the passengers and the integrity of the aircraft are closely intertwined,” the passenger’s chaos-causing statements and other conduct not only interfered with the flight crew and endangered the other passengers but also endangered the aircraft itself.


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