Chances are, if you’ve followed the news during the past several weeks, you’re familiar with a doctor from Kentucky and his premature exit from United Airlines Flight 3411, bound from O’Hare Airport to Louisville. Cell phone video footage shows law enforcement officers violently dragging the man off the flight, allegedly causing the doctor to suffer a concussion, a broken nose, and the loss of two teeth. Now, sources including the Chicago Tribune indicate that legal action is forthcoming.
The dispute arose after four United employees sought to board a United flight from Chicago to Louisville. The airline began making room on the flight by seeking volunteers to deplane, but not enough people volunteered, so the airline began involuntarily “bumping” passengers. When the 69-year-old doctor refused to give up his seat, airport law enforcement physically removed him, causing him substantial injuries in the process.
Some have suggested that the airline violated its contract with the passenger. Each time you purchase an air travel ticket, the airline and you enter into a “contract of carriage.” Contracts of carriage like United’s have provisions for situations in which an airline seeks to deny boarding to a passenger or address an oversold situation. In the doctor’s case, though, neither of those sets of rules arguably applied. As one aviation attorney from Philadelphia told Town and Country Magazine, “This is not a denied boarding incident, which is covered by the contract; this man was already boarded. This is not an oversold incident, as provided for by the contract; this airplane was not oversold—every passenger was ticketed and had a seat.”
In addition to possible contract-based claims, the injured passenger might also have certain personal injury claims, including assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Airlines have previously used the Federal Aviation Act and the principle of preemption to avoid potential liability on various types of claims. Courts, however, have often ruled that state law claims related to torts like intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery are not blocked by the principle of preemption, and plaintiffs may pursue those claims.
In 1990, here in Chicago, employees of American Airlines detained and had a man arrested for the alleged theft of an airline ticket. The state eventually dropped the case, and the man launched a state court tort action. He asserted claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The airline tried to argue that preemption entitled it to the dismissal of the case, but the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that preemption didn’t apply. A federal court in Michigan reached the same result in 1993 when a passenger brought a negligence claim against United as a result of injuries suffered from a piece of luggage that fell from an overhead compartment.
Obviously, situations exactly like this doctor’s are extremely rare, but there are a few generally similar cases that also seem to indicate that the doctor may be able to pursue a tort case for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. An early 1990s case from Massachusetts involved a man attempting to board a flight from Haiti to New York. At some point, an American Airlines flight attendant allegedly became angry and told the passenger to “get out of the plane,” adding a racial slur. The militia was brought to the scene, and the passenger was shoved toward the militia guards before the pilot interceded. In that case, the court ruled that preemption did not bar the passenger from pursuing his case for assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Massachusetts’ civil rights laws.
While the physical mistreatment of passengers aboard commercial airplanes is not common in the U.S., sometimes airlines do commit tortious acts, and passengers get injured as a result. The experienced Chicago aviation injury attorneys at Katz, Friedman, Eisenstein, Johnson, Bareck & Bertuca have spent many years dealing with injury cases that involve airlines. To set up a free case evaluation, contact us at 800-444-1525 or through our website.
More Blog Posts:
United Ramp Agent Secures Compensation for Knee Injury Suffered While Hauling Baby Strollers, Chicago Injury Attorneys Blog, April 12, 2017
United Airlines Pilot Loses Workers’ Compensation Claim Due to Procedural Misstep, Chicago Injury Attorneys Blog, March 28, 2017