Dog dies after flight but owner’s lawsuit survives airline’s summary judgment motion

Ing v. American Airlines (N.D. Cal. Feb. 5, 2007).  Willie, “a young English Bulldog,” was shipped in a kennel in the cargo compartment of a flight from JFK to San Francisco in August 2005.  Upon arrival, Willie was sick and his owner requested that he be allowed to take Willie to a veterinarian.  American refused to release Willie to his owner and the dog died several hours later, while still in the airline’s custody.

Willie’s owner sued the airline, alleging causes of action for negligence, gross negligence, trespass to chattel, conversion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of bailment contract, breach of contract and violations of certain California statutes.  American moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the owner’s state tort and statutory claims were preempted and that its contract liability was limited to $50 by the air waybill.

The court held that the federal Airline Deregulation Act and federal common law preempted the owner’s state tort and statutory causes of action but only with respect to the period of time the dog was being shipped.  As to the owner’s contract causes of action, the court held that the air waybill’s $50 limitation of liability governed unless a jury were to find that American breached the air waybill through conduct rising to the level of intentional destruction or theft of the dog.  The court held that because a jury could reasonably conclude that American did engage in such conduct by refusing to release the ailing dog to his owner upon request, summary judgment was not proper.

Finally, the court held that once the owner requested that the airline release the dog, a reasonable jury could conclude that “American’s conduct after the flight landed was a separate incident unrelated to shipping the dog.”  Accordingly, the court denied the airline’s summary judgment motion to the extent it applied to the owner’s post-shipping claims.

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