Passenger ground delay case is trimmed but survives

Ray v. American Airlines, Inc. (W.D. Ark. Aug. 22, 2008).  The passenger’s December 2007 flight on American from Oakland to Dallas was diverted to Austin due to weather conditions.  The passenger claims that she was confined to the aircraft in Austin against her will and that she endured “deplorable conditions” during the 11-hour ground delay.

The passenger filed a lawsuit against American, alleging causes of action for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, breach of contract and fraud.  American moved to dismiss the passenger’s claims on the grounds that they are preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act and the Federal Aviation Act and that, moreover, she failed to allege sufficient facts to state a claim under her various state common law causes of action.

The court rejected most of American’s preemption arguments.  As to the Airline Deregulation Act, the court reasoned that while an “affirmative regulation” that impacts an airline’s “business functions” would be preempted by the ADA, the passenger’s tort claims were not preempted because “allowing an individual to recover for injuries tortiously caused by a carrier does not create any such regulation.”  The court did find, however, that the ADA preempted the passenger’s claims for compensation for lodging, meals and ground transportation, since the U.S. Department of Transportation has implemented regulations requiring such compensation when flights are overbooked but not when flights are canceled for weather-related reasons.  The court also held that the ADA preempted the passenger’s breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim to the extent that it sought to enlarge the scope of the airline’s specific contractual obligations.

As to the Federal Aviation Act, which preempts the field of passenger health and safety on commercial aircraft, the court held that this statute preempted the passenger’s claims regarding the airline’s decision to divert her flight due to safety concerns but that it did not preempt her claims that are based on the airline’s conduct after the flight was diverted and on the ground in Austin.

Next, the court considered whether the passenger had stated a claim under her various state common law tort causes of action.  The court held that the passenger had properly stated claims for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence but that she had failed to state claims for breach of contract and fraud.  The court granted the passenger leave to file a second amended complaint in which she could allege additional facts to remedy the defects in her first amended complaint and add additional claims.

Note:  The court’s preemption rulings in this case are very similar to those that a California federal district court made in April 2008 in Hanni v. American Airlines, Inc.  The Hanni case involves a passenger’s claims regarding a ground delay during a December 2006 flight from San Francisco to Mobile, Alabama.  As a result of her experience, Ms. Hanni not only sued but also founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which operates www.flyersrights.com.


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