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

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.


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