Court shows the door to passenger’s exit row seating claims

April 3, 2015

Naqvi v. Turkish Airlines, Inc. (D.D.C. Feb. 23, 2015).  While checking in for his Turkish Airlines flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, the passenger/plaintiff requested an exit row seat.  According to the plaintiff, airline personnel denied his request but promised him a “leg space seat.”  The plaintiff alleged that, upon boarding the aircraft, he discovered that the exit row seats were occupied by passengers who did not meet the minimum height requirement for such seats and that his assigned seat was not a “leg space seat.”  The plaintiff also alleged that the airline violated several safety requirements, including by not illuminating the seat belt signs before landing.  The plaintiff asserted that the airline’s conduct caused him to suffer “extreme emotional and physical distress.”

In his pro se complaint, the plaintiff advanced causes of action for breach of contract and for discrimination under what the court described as a “kaleidoscope of federal statutes.”  The plaintiff demanded compensatory damages of $250,000 and punitive damages of $150,000.  After removing the case to federal court, Turkish Airlines moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the Montreal Convention preempted its claims and that it failed to state an actionable breach of contract or discrimination claim.

The court granted the motion.  First, the court ruled that the Montreal Convention governed the plaintiff’s claims because they arose from “international carriage” within the meaning of the Convention.  The court then ruled that the Convention preempted the plaintiff’s contract and discrimination causes of action.  According to the court, the result of the preemption was that, unless the plaintiff could “shoehorn his allegations into an actionable claim” under Article 17 of the Convention, which governs compensation “for the type of personal injury alleged” in the case, he could not state any claim whatsoever against the airline.

Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention provides as follows:  “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The court ruled that the plaintiff had failed to plead that his injuries had been caused by an “accident,” as is required to state a claim under Article 17.  Citing cases, the court ruled that, because “disputes over airline seat assignments are neither unexpected nor unusual,” the dispute alleged by the plaintiff did not qualify as an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The court also ruled that the plaintiff’s Article 17 claim failed, even assuming the occurrence of an “accident,” because the plaintiff had failed to “allege that an actionable ‘bodily injury’ resulted from defendant’s purported transgressions.”  The plaintiff had asserted that he had suffered “extreme emotional and physical distress,” but, in accordance with the governing caselaw, the court ruled that physical manifestations of mental injuries did not satisfy the Article 17 “bodily injury” requirement.

Note:  The plaintiff has another pro se case against an airline, Naqvi v. Saudi Arabian Airlines, pending in the same court.

 


Airline’s conditions of carriage withstand tropical storm

February 19, 2015

Chen v. China Eastern Airlines Co., Ltd. (N.Y. City Civ. Nov. 20, 2014).  The passenger/plaintiff bought a six-segment China Eastern ticket from an online travel agent.  After taking the first two flights (New York to Shanghai and Shanghai to Manila), the plaintiff took a side trip in the Philippines on a different airline.  The plaintiff alleged that “an unexpected and strangely behaving tropical storm” prevented him from traveling on the third and fourth flights in the sequence (Manila to Shanghai and Shanghai to Urumqi, China) and that he informed China Eastern that he would be available to travel on the fifth and sixth flights (Urumqi to Shanghai and Shanghai to New York).  The third and fourth flights departed as scheduled.

China Eastern refused to allow the plaintiff to travel on the fifth or sixth flights in the sequence.  The airline relied on the conditions of carriage applicable to the ticket, which required that the flight coupons “be used in sequence as specified on the Ticket” and that the failure to use them in sequence “will result in the refusal of CEAIR to provide carriage.”

The passenger arranged for transportation to New York on a different airline and then brought a lawsuit against China Eastern, alleging breach of contract.  After conducting discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The court granted the airline’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s motion.  The court ruled that China Eastern’s conditions of carriage had been incorporated in the parties’ contract of carriage by reference because, in accordance with federal regulations, the plaintiff had received notice of such incorporation and the conditions of carriage were available for inspection at the departure airport.  The court also ruled that the conditions of carriage required that the flight coupons be used in sequence and that the plaintiff’s failure to comply with this requirement permitted the airline to refuse him carriage on the remaining flights.  Thus, the court held that the airline had not breached the contract of carriage.

In his motion, the plaintiff, an attorney, advanced several creative arguments.  One argument was that his inability to comply with the flight coupon sequence requirement was excused under the force majeure doctrine.  He contended that his flight to Manila had been canceled due a force majeure event, the tropical storm, and that such event excused his failure to use the coupons in sequence.  China Eastern responded that the force majeure doctrine did not have any logical application to the plaintiff because such doctrine is a defense that is only available to a non-performing party that is alleged to have breached a contract, and that the plaintiff had taken the position that he was the non-breaching party.  The court agreed with the airline.


Court downgrades passengers’ seating upgrade lawsuit

January 21, 2015

Gulilat v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D. Fla. Oct. 29, 2014).  After boarding their flight from New York to Ghana, the two passenger/plaintiffs made a request to a flight attendant that they be reassigned to “upgraded comfort seats,” according to their amended complaint.  The plaintiffs asserted that Delta employees not only denied their request, but that the employees upgraded white passengers to the “comfort seats,” shouted racial epithets at the plaintiffs as they were escorted off the aircraft by authorities in Ghana and falsely stated to such authorities that the plaintiffs had engaged in unlawful conduct during the flight.

The plaintiffs’ amended complaint sought $1 million in damages under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention.  Article 17(1) provides as follows:  “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”

Delta moved to dismiss, and the court granted Delta’s motion.  The court held that the plaintiffs had failed to plead that their injuries had been caused by an “accident,” as is required to state a claim under Article 17.  Citing numerous cases, the court ruled that, because a dispute related to aircraft seating “is neither unexpected nor unusual,” the dispute alleged by the plaintiffs did not qualify as an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The court also ruled that the plaintiffs’ Article 17 claim failed, even assuming the occurrence of an “accident,” because the seating dispute did not result in any “bodily injury” to either plaintiff.  The plaintiffs asserted that they had suffered emotional distress and anxiety, but, in accordance with the governing caselaw, the court ruled that these physical manifestations of emotional distress did not satisfy the Article 17 “bodily injury” requirement.


Brokers battle in federal court over “bank” of frequent flyer points and miles

November 25, 2014

AZ DNR, LLC d/b/a ERC, LLC v. Luxury Travel Brokers, Inc. and Timothy W. Gibson (D. Kan. Oct. 24, 2014).  Litigation between brokers has revealed some of the inner workings of the secondary wholesale market for frequent flyer program points and miles.  In its complaint, ERC alleged that it is “in the business of purchasing and repurposing unwanted credit card reward points and frequent flyer miles” from consumers.  ERC deposits the purchased points and miles in a “bank” it maintains and then resells them to travel agencies and other customers.  Luxury Travel Brokers, which does business as “Flyer Miles” and “Flyer Smiles,” bought points and miles from ERC for resale to its own wholesale and retail customers.

Over time, ERC and Luxury Travel became so chummy that ERC permitted Luxury Travel to “self-serve” by accessing the bank directly and withdrawing points and miles as needed.  However, according to ERC, Luxury Travel became too familiar with the bank, helping itself to points and miles but not paying for them, and even taking points and miles that were not available for purchase.  When the parties’ negotiations over compensation for the excessive self-service failed, ERC filed suit.  ERC sued not only Luxury Travel but Timothy Gibson, the owner of Flyer Miles and Flyer Smiles, as well.  ERC’s complaint asserted claims for tortious interference with contracts and prospective contracts, violation of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss.  Their main argument was that ERC lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because ERC “has no legitimate property rights” in the points and miles in the bank because “[p]ursuant to the contracts between these customers and the airlines and financial institutions, these frequent flier miles and reward points are generally the property of the airlines and financial institutions, until redeemed by the customer.”  The court denied the motion to dismiss, primarily because the motion raised various factual defenses that the court could not consider in deciding a motion to dismiss.  For example, the court ruled that ERC had “sufficiently alleged” that it “purchased points and miles from others.”

The defendants then filed their answer to the complaint.  Ironically, one of their affirmative defenses, entitled “public policy,” mirrored the primary claim that airlines typically assert in lawsuits against brokers; the defendants explained their “public policy” defense as follows:  “Plaintiff’s recovery in this matter is barred for the reason that Plaintiff’s alleged sale of frequent flier miles and credit card reward points necessarily involves the breach of Plaintiff’s ‘customers’ [sic] third party contracts with airlines and financial institutions.  Thus, Plaintiff cannot show that it has any lawful right that has been interfered with.  Furthermore, it would be against public policy to allow an individual to sue for interference with property rights that are only ‘acquired,’ to the extent they are so acquired, if at all, via the necessary breach of an individual’s third party contract with another individual.”

However, the defendants will not have the opportunity to prove at trial that the brokerage of points and miles fundamentally violates public policy.  Due to what the court described as the defendants’ “pattern of intransigence and violations of Court orders,” it entered a default judgment against them.  The remainder of the case will be limited to litigation over the quantification of the damages to which ERC is entitled and whether ERC is entitled to injunctive relief.  The damages phase of the lawsuit should provide an additional insight into this secondary wholesale market by showing the value that market participants place on points and miles.

Note:  ERC operates the website earnrewardscash.com, which advertises that “We Buy CREDIT CARD POINTS and AIRLINE MILES! Safe. Simple. Discreet. Guaranteed.”  Timothy Gibson was the founder of Alpha Media Group, LLC, which does business as Alpha Flight Guru and operates the website alphaflightguru.com.


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.”


Court rejects passenger’s “principal and permanent residence” argument in subject matter jurisdiction dispute

February 13, 2014

Razi v. Qatar Airways Q.C.S.C. (S.D. Tex. Feb. 6, 2014).  A passenger traveling on a roundtrip ticket for transportation originating in Pakistan alleged she was burned by a hot beverage served by a flight attendant during a flight from Doha, Qatar, to Houston.  The passenger filed a lawsuit in a Texas state court, which the airline removed to federal court.

Qatar Airways then moved to dismiss on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Montreal Convention.  Pursuant to Article 33 of the Convention, a plaintiff may bring an action for damages in the United States against a carrier only when the United States is (i) “the domicile of the carrier,” (ii) the “principal place of business” of the carrier, (iii) the place where the carrier has a “place of business through which the contract has been made,” (iv) “the place of destination,” or (v) in cases involving the death or injury of a passenger, the “principal and permanent residence” of the passenger at the time of the accident.

The passenger’s only possible shot at defeating the motion was proving that the United States was her “principal and permanent residence,” which the Convention defined as her “one fixed and permanent abode,” at the time of the incident.  She had alleged in her complaint that she resided in Houston, but the court found that, at the time of the incident, she was a citizen of Pakistan, was traveling to the United States under a “Five-Year Multiple-Entry Visa” and had intended to stay in the United States for only three and a half months.  Based on these findings, the court ruled that the passenger’s “one fixed and permanent abode” was Pakistan, not the United States, and granted the airline’s motion.

Note:  Qatar Airways successfully used a similar subject matter jurisdiction argument in a Maryland case (Alemi v. Qatar Airways) in 2012.


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