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

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.”

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