Court enforces conditions of carriage in missing jewelry lawsuit

Hekmat v. U.S. Transportation Security Administration and JetBlue Airways Corporation (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2017).  Before her flight from JFK to LAX, the passenger/plaintiff packed eight rings worth over $95,000 in her “Rimowa hard shell suitcase with integrated lock system,” which she then checked with JetBlue.  After retrieving the bag at LAX, the plaintiff “immediately” opened it, only to find the rings missing.

The plaintiff, together with her husband, who “stood to inherit [the rings] from his wife if she predeceased him,” sued TSA and JetBlue, advancing causes of action for bailment, negligence and failure to supervise their employees and agents.  The plaintiffs also advanced a breach of contract cause of action against JetBlue.

Both defendants filed motions to dismiss.  JetBlue contended that the ADA preempted the plaintiffs’ tort claims and that the plaintiffs had failed to allege an actionable breach of contract claim.  The express preemption provision of the ADA, 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1), prohibits states from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation under this subpart.”

The plaintiffs argued that the ADA did not apply because “employee misconduct” in the form of “taking the jewelry of a traveler has nothing to do with the proper provision” of an airline’s baggage handling “service.”  In response, JetBlue contended that the plaintiffs’ amended complaint did not allege theft by JetBlue employees – a claim that would have failed because employee theft is outside the scope of employment – but, rather, only alleged various forms of negligence by JetBlue in its baggage handling procedures, i.e., its baggage “service.”  The court agreed, and ruled that the ADA preempted the plaintiffs’ tort claims.

As to the plaintiffs’ contract claim, JetBlue contended that the terms and conditions of its Contract of Carriage were incorporated by reference in the parties’ contract via the electronic ticket confirmation that JetBlue sent, and that such Contract of Carriage expressly excluded any liability resulting from the carriage of jewelry.  The plaintiffs responded that the Contract of Carriage was unenforceable because they had had no way of reading it, as the ticket confirmation did not contain a link to JetBlue’s website.  The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, ruling that they were on constructive notice of the existence of the Contract of Carriage.

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that, even if the Contract of Carriage were in effect, the liability exclusion was inapplicable because it only applied where jewelry was “lost, damaged or delayed,” but the rings had been “deliberately taken.”  The court rejected this argument, ruling that the Contract of Carriage’s broader language, stating that JetBlue will not accept jewelry for carriage, absolved JetBlue from all liability resulting from carriage of the rings, “regardless of whether lost or deliberately taken.”

As to the TSA, the court ruled that the FTCA barred the plaintiffs’ claims.  Accordingly, the court granted both defendants’ motions and dismissed the case.

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