Airline not liable for refusing to board customer who admitted she appeared to be drunk

Pipino v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D. Fla. July 18, 2016).  When the plaintiff lined up at the gate to board the flight from LaGuardia Airport to Tampa, she was not at her best; she had a chipped a tooth the previous night, had a painful blister on her foot and had consumed three alcoholic beverages during the previous few hours.  After Delta gate personnel asked the plaintiff to step out of the line, they smelled alcohol on her.  They informed her that she would not be permitted to board because she was inebriated.

Upon hearing that she had been refused boarding, the plaintiff felt symptoms of a panic attack.  The plaintiff requested that the Delta personnel call paramedics, but she was not sure if the personnel understood her because she was upset and her chipped tooth prevented her from speaking clearly.

The plaintiff remained in the departure area of the terminal until after midnight, when the terminal was closing.  Delta personnel told the plaintiff that she needed to leave.  The plaintiff responded that she was having a panic attack and needed medical assistance.  After airline personnel reported the situation to the Port Authority, two officers arrived.  Their presence calmed the plaintiff, and she was able to leave the terminal.  The plaintiff claimed that she had panic-related symptoms for several days but admitted that she did not sustain any physical injury during the incident.

The plaintiff’s complaint against Delta alleged one count, for negligence.  She alleged that Delta “breached its duty of care to the Plaintiff by disregarding Plaintiff’s disabled circumstances, panic attack and thereby failed to discern that Plaintiff was injured in her mouth and in her foot, which made her appear inebriated, even though she was not inebriated” and “breached its duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of Plaintiff by ignoring Plaintiff’s repeated requests for medical assistance in the face of what was obviously a passenger in an abnormal state of emotional distress.”

Delta moved for summary judgment, first arguing that federal law preempted the plaintiff’s boarding-related negligence claim.  Delta cited Section 121.575(c) of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which provides that “[n]o certificate holder may allow any person to board any of its aircraft if that person appears to be intoxicated.”  Delta also relied on 49 U.S.C. § 44902(b), under which an air carrier “may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety.”  The plaintiff responded that Delta had an obligation to determine whether the plaintiff was in fact intoxicated, and that its failure to do so rendered its decision that she appeared intoxicated arbitrary and capricious, thus eliminating the preemptive effect of the regulation and the statute.

Delta also argued that the plaintiff’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim failed under Florida’s “impact rule,” as there was no evidence that the plaintiff had sustained physical injuries as a result of an impact.  The plaintiff argued that she satisfied the impact rule because she had experienced physical manifestations from her panic attack.

The court concurred with Delta’s arguments.  As to preemption by federal law, the court ruled that the plaintiff’s boarding-related negligence claim was preempted because the plaintiff’s admission, in her complaint, that her chipped tooth and foot blister “made her appear inebriated” foreclosed her contention that Delta’s determination that she was intoxicated was arbitrary and capricious.  The court then held that the impact rule barred the plaintiff’s claim that Delta had negligently failed to obtain medical assistance for her because the plaintiff had failed to present evidence that any Delta employee had touched her and because panic attacks are “emotional disturbances,” not physical injuries.  Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment for Delta.

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