Montreal Convention cancels ticketholders’ canceled ticket claims

June 23, 2016

Papaiyawala v. Saudi Arabian Airlines (E.D.V.A. Apr. 15, 2016).  The plaintiffs, a married couple, had purchased tickets for the wife’s parents to travel from India to New York.  Several days before the outbound flight, Saudia canceled the tickets in response to a fraud alert from the plaintiffs’ credit card company and then initiated the process of refunding the purchase price to the plaintiffs’ account.

The plaintiffs and the parents did not find out that the tickets had been canceled until the parents attempted to check in at the airport in India.  Saudia informed the parents that they could travel on the flight at issue if they paid the difference between the then-current fare and the ticketed fare, but the parents declined this offer and made alternate travel arrangements.  About two weeks later, the refund for the tickets was credited to the plaintiffs’ credit card account.

The plaintiffs filed a state court action seeking damages of $5,000 for the mental stress, embarrassment and inconvenience that their parents experienced as a result of the airline’s cancelation of the tickets.  Saudia removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss, contending that the plaintiffs’ claim was for delay and thus exclusively governed by Article 19 of the Montreal Convention, which did not provide any relief for the plaintiffs.  Saudia made a compelling argument to distinguish the cases holding that boarding denial claims are not governed by Article 19 because such claims seek relief for contractual nonperformance, not delay; Saudia argued that, by the time the parents attempted to check in for the flight, there was no longer any contract in existence because Saudia had already canceled the tickets and initiated the refund.  Saudia then contended that the plaintiffs could not recover under Article 19 because damages for purely mental injuries are not recoverable under the Convention.

As a secondary argument, Saudia contended that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue for any mental injuries that the parents had sustained.

The court concurred with Saudia’s Montreal Convention argument and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they had actionable claims under 14 C.F.R. § 250.5 and 14 C.F.R. § 259.8.  Accordingly, the court dismissed the case and denied leave to amend the complaint.  The court did not discuss Saudia’s standing argument.


ATSA immunizes airline and employee from liability to customer who made bomb reference and disparaged TSA

September 30, 2015

Baez v. JetBlue Airways Corporation (2d. Cir. July 16, 2015).  The plaintiff checked baggage for her JetBlue flight from JFK to Austin, Texas.  However, she appeared at the gate late, after the aircraft’s door had been closed, so the gate agent refused to let her board.  The plaintiff admitted that she then made what the Second Circuit described as a “cryptic reference to the possibility of a bomb in her luggage”:  “Isn’t it a security risk to let a bag go on a plane without a passenger, what if there was a bomb in the bag?”  The plaintiff alleged that the agent responded, “TSA agents would know if there was a bomb in the bag,” to which the plaintiff replied, “TSA–my ass,” and walked away.

The gate agent reported the conversation to her supervisor, who alerted the airline’s security personnel and TSA.  JetBlue rerouted the aircraft as a security measure and searched all the checked baggage after it landed.  The plaintiff’s bag did not contain a bomb.  But it did contain marijuana residue.  The plaintiff was charged under 49 U.S.C. § 46507(1) with making a false bomb threat.  The government dropped the charge, and the plaintiff pleaded guilty to charges based on the marijuana residue found in her bag.

The plaintiff sued JetBlue for “a host of claims,” including negligent supervision, retention, training and hiring, defamation, false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  She sued the gate agent as well.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the ground that they were immune from suit under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, 49 U.S.C. § 44941.  Among other things, ATSA immunizes airlines and their employees from any liability for reporting “any suspicious transaction relevant to a possible violation of law or regulation, relating to air piracy, a threat to aircraft or passenger safety, or terrorism” to a law enforcement officer.  Immunity is not provided for reports that are “materially false.”  A report is materially false if an accurate report regarding the “suspicious transaction” at issue would have had a different effect on the mind of a “reasonable security officer,” i.e., if an accurate report would have caused such officer to decide not to investigate the report.

Before the Second Circuit, the plaintiff argued that the district court had erred by deciding whether the gate agent’s statements were materially false at the summary judgment stage, as that issue should been decided by a jury.  The appeals court disagreed and affirmed the district court.  It concluded that the gate agent’s report was not materially false because “a reasonable officer would necessarily have followed up on the statements Baez admitted she made,” i.e., such officer would have investigated the “report of a disgruntled passenger who adverted to a bomb in luggage and deprecated the agency responsible for detecting such bombs.”


Passenger’s racial discrimination claims based on airline deplaning come up short

October 29, 2014

Mercer v. Southwest Airlines Co. (N.D. Cal. Sept. 19, 2014).  In his amended complaint, the plaintiff, an African American, alleged that he and fiancée boarded the Southwest LAX-IAH flight with two carry-on bags apiece.  The plaintiff stowed his bags in an overhead compartment and then, “as a gentleman,” proceeded to do the same with one of his fiancée’s bags.  A white Southwest flight attendant told him three times that “he was over the 2 limit per person for carry-on luggage,” and he “politely explained” each time that he was assisting with his fiancée’s bag and thus was not over the limit.

According to the plaintiff, a Southwest supervisor deplaned him several minutes later, and his fiancée followed him off the aircraft.  In the gate area, the Southwest supervisor told the plaintiff that he had been deplaned because the captain “did not want plaintiff on the aircraft as he considered plaintiff to be a security threat.”  The plaintiff and his fiancée were rebooked, and traveled, on a Southwest flight to IAH later that day.

The plaintiff’s amended complaint asserted claims for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of 49 U.S.C. § 40127, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.  Southwest moved to dismiss on the grounds that the amended complaint failed to state an actionable claim.

The court granted Southwest’s motion.  The court’s key ruling was that the Federal Aviation Act preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim.  Noting that the FAA impliedly preempts the field of aviation safety and that 49 U.S.C. § 44902(b), an FAA provision, sets the standard for an airline’s refusal to transport a passenger on safety grounds, the court reasoned that the plaintiff’s negligence claim, which was based on a California statutory standard of care, directly implicated the aviation safety field because, according to the plaintiff himself, safety was the apparent basis for Southwest’s decision to deplane him.  Thus, the court held that the FAA preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because its consideration of that claim would have required that it determine whether he did indeed pose a safety threat in order to determine whether the airline’s conduct was justified.  The court held that the FAA preempted the plaintiff’s emotional distress claim for the same reasons.

The plaintiff had argued that the Southwest supervisor’s explanation regarding his removal from the aircraft on security grounds was merely a pretext for racial discrimination and that he never posed a safety threat.  In response, the court pointed out that, for purposes of FAA preemption, the critical issue was not whether the captain was correct in his belief that the plaintiff was a safety threat but that the plaintiff’s tort claims would have impermissibly required that the court evaluate the safety issue under a state law standard of care.

The court then disposed of the plaintiff’s statutory claims.  It noted that the plaintiff had withdrawn his 42 U.S.C. § 2000a claim, and it held that the plaintiff had no private right of action under 49 U.S.C. § 40127 and that he had failed to adequately state a racial discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 because he had not alleged that he was treated differently than similarly-situated white passengers on the flight.  The court granted the plaintiff leave to amend his Section 1981 claim.


Court upholds airline’s right to deplane feisty, drunk-acting passenger

October 12, 2014

Lozada v. Delta Airlines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. June 17, 2014).  The 69-year-old plaintiff eased the pain of a JFK-MIA flight delay by enjoying alcoholic drinks at two airport bars.  The plaintiff alleged that she boarded the aircraft without incident, but Delta disagreed.  According to airline personnel, the plaintiff appeared intoxicated and loudly demanded, in the gate area and on board, free drinks for the passengers as compensation for the delay.  In her seat, the plaintiff repeatedly pushed the call bell and was slurring her speech.  Delta personnel repeatedly instructed the plaintiff to calm down, to no avail.  The cabin crew notified the captain, who instructed that they request that the airport police deplane the plaintiff. The airport police removed her from the aircraft but did not charge her with any crime.

The plaintiff sued Delta in state court, alleging negligence.  After removing the case to federal court and conducting discovery, Delta moved for summary judgment.  Delta contended that the plaintiff’s claim was preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act and the Federal Aviation Act and that, even if her claim were not preempted, she had failed to state a claim for negligence under New York law.

The ADA preempts state common law negligence and most other state law claims that relate to an airline’s “service.”  The FAA grants an airline the right to “refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety.”  The plaintiff’s primary argument in opposition to Delta’s motion was that the airline was required “to demonstrate as a matter of law that the Plaintiff was intoxicated” but that it had not presented any “real proof at all of Plaintiff’s purported intoxication,” such as the result of a Breathalyzer test.

The court granted Delta’s motion.  First, the court held that the ADA preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because the airline’s deplaning of the plaintiff related to its fundamental “service” of deciding whether to transport a passenger and that such removal was not outrageous or unreasonable, particularly given that the plaintiff herself admitted during her deposition that she may have been acting like “a brute or something.”  Next, the court held that the FAA also preempted the plaintiff’s negligence claim because the plaintiff’s drunk-appearing conduct gave Delta’s personnel “reason to believe” that she was intoxicated and thus posed a safety risk.  The court ruled that it was “ultimately irrelevant” whether the plaintiff “was actually intoxicated.”


Airline not liable for refusing to transport customer who lacked required travel documents

March 28, 2011

Reed v. Delta Airlines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 23, 2011).  The plaintiff and her dog, Blondie, arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport to check in for their flight to Ghana.  Delta personnel informed the plaintiff that she lacked certain documents that Ghana required for Blondie to enter the country.  The plaintiff put Blondie in a cab to her son’s home and reentered the terminal, only to later discover that Blondie had departed with the plaintiff’s passport.  In accordance with Delta’s conditions of carriage, the airline’s personnel refused to transport the plaintiff due to her failure to present a passport, and they rebooked her on a subsequent flight.

The plaintiff sued Delta, claiming that it was liable for refusing to transport her (and Blondie, the co-plaintiff) under breach of contract, implied contract and covenant of good faith and fair dealing causes of action, and under several tort causes of action as well.  The plaintiff requested damages totaling over $1.2 million.

Delta moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it had not breached the parties’ contract, that the plaintiff’s implied contract and good faith and fair dealing claims failed given the existence of an express contract between the parties and that the plaintiffs’ tort claims were preempted by 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b), the preemption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act.  The court agreed.

The court held that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim failed because Delta had “acted within its rights” under its conditions of carriage, which specifically allowed the airline to refuse to transport the plaintiff for failing to present a passport and to refuse to transport Blondie because the plaintiff lacked certain documents required by Ghana.  The court agreed that the plaintiff’s implied contract and good faith and fair dealing claims failed because the parties had entered into an express contract.

The court then turned to the plaintiff’s various tort claims.  It held that not only were the plaintiff’s tort claims preempted by the ADA because they all “involve[d] Delta’s boarding practice which is an airline service,” but because also they lacked substantive merit, and it analyzed the deficiencies of each claim.


Race discrimination claim preempted by Warsaw Convention

March 8, 2011

Sewer v. LIAT (1974) Ltd. (D. Virgin Islands Feb. 16, 2011).  The plaintiff had purchased a ticket for a LIAT flight from the British Virgin Islands to Antigua.  The flight was overbooked, so airline personnel informed the plaintiff that he would have to take a later flight.  Undeterred, the plaintiff (and the other waiting would-be passengers) pushed past the airline’s gate personnel and boarded the aircraft.  Airline personnel asked the plaintiff to leave the aircraft because he did not have a seat, and he did so.  An off-duty police officer arrested and handcuffed the plaintiff, who was briefly detained in an airport holding cell and released without being charged with any crime.

The plaintiff filed suit against the airline, asserting claims of race discrimination, defamation and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, although the plaintiff only pursued the discrimination claim.  The court described the plaintiff as “a black West Indian with dreadlocks in his hair who believes in the underlying tenets of Rastafarianism.”

LIAT moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion.  The court agreed with the airline that the plaintiff’s discrimination claim was preempted by the Warsaw Convention, citing King v. American Airlines (written by now-Justice Sotomayor) and several other cases.  The court also held that the plaintiff had no claim under the Warsaw Convention because bumping is a well-established airline industry practice and, thus, is not an “unexpected or unusual event” constituting an “accident” under Article 17.  Finally, the court held that, even if the bumping had constituted an “accident,” the plaintiff’s claim still failed because his injuries, bruised and swollen wrists, were caused by the off-duty police officer in the airport, not by airline personnel on the aircraft.

Note:  Plaintiff filed the case in 2002, and LIAT filed its summary judgment motion in 2009.  Cases seem to move at a leisurely pace in the Virgin Islands, in both federal and state courts.


Court rejects parent’s contention that airline has duty during boarding to ensure compliance with child custody orders

December 12, 2010

Braden v. All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd. (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. Oct. 13, 2010).  In a child custody case, the court had denied the mother’s request to move to Japan with her infant daughter and had ordered that she surrender her daughter’s passport.  Despite the order, the mother, using the passport, took the child with her on an ANA flight from Los Angeles to Japan.  Because Japan is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, the father had no legal recourse to compel his daughter’s return to the U.S.

The father sued ANA, alleging causes of action for negligence and interference with custodial relations.  He asserted that ANA had violated its duty to him to make the mother prove, as part of the boarding process, that she had his consent to take their daughter out of the country or that she had sole custody of the child.  The trial court sustained ANA’s demurrer to the amended complaint, and the father appealed.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.  First, however, the court rejected the trial court’s ruling that the father’s claims were preempted by 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1), the preemption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act.  That provision states in part as follows:  “[A] State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of at least 2 States may not enact or enforce 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.”

Following the Ninth Circuit and other California appellate courts, the appeals court adopted a narrow view of the term “service,” and, consistent with that view, held that a claim related to an airline’s boarding procedures is not preempted by the ADA.  The court reasoned that boarding procedures “are not services within the meaning of the ADA” because they have “no impact on prices, schedules, origins, or destinations” and do not represent “a legitimate interest needing protection under the ADA.”

The appeals court then upheld the trial court’s ruling that the father had failed to state a negligence claim.  The court held that ANA did not owe him a duty of care because there was “no authority for the proposition that a common carrier has a duty to ensure that a minor traveling with a custodial parent is not being transported in violation of a court order.”  For the same reason, the appeals court also held that the father’s intentional interference with custodial relations claim failed.

Note:  The First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Circuits have held that an airline’s boarding procedures constitute a “service” within the meaning of the ADA, in contrast to the Ninth Circuit’s highly restrictive definition of the term (which the Third Circuit also decided to adopt).  According to Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, the Supreme Court reversed or vacated Ninth Circuit decisions in 148 of 182 cases during the last nine terms.  Thus, the Ninth Circuit “got it wrong in 81% of its cases that the Supreme Court agreed to hear,” which is a “strikingly poor record.”  According to Judge O’Scannlain, “even more telling than the reversal rate itself, however, is the number of unanimous reversals.  Seventy-two of the 148 Ninth Circuit cases reversed during the period in question were at the hands of a unanimous Supreme Court.”  Harvard Law School, When ‘The Nine’ Overrule the Ninth:  O’Scannlain ponders 10 years of reversals (Sept. 27, 2010).


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