United States: Recent Rulings Find Preemption Of State Law Claims And Enforce Airline Contracts Of Carriage

Judith Nemsick is a Partner in the New York office

Sarah Gogal Passeri is an Associate in the New York office

In the past few months, courts have issued several decisions favorable to the airlines finding preemption of various state law claims and rejecting breach of contract claims. The decisions address a variety of passenger claims ranging from delays, denied boarding, discrimination and airline mistreatment. Each case resulted in a positive outcome for the defendant airline.

Breach of Contract and Rude Customer Service Claims Dismissed on Summary Judgment

In Migdelany v. Am. Airlines Corp.,1 three passengers and the travel company that booked their flights sued the airline for breach of contract and rude customer service even though the passengers arrived at the incorrect airport for their return flight from South America to the United States. The travel company, rather than book the passengers' return flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina (with the rest of their travel group), mistakenly had made reservations for return travel from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The court granted the airline's motion for summary judgment, concluding there could be no breach of contract by the airline because it was completely prepared to transport the passengers to the U.S. from Rio de Janeiro — the city that the plaintiffs had contracted for as the place of their departure. The airline clearly had complied with the terms of its contract of carriage with the plaintiffs and, in fact, reimbursed the plaintiffs for the unused portion of their airfare, even though it was not required to do so.

In Buenos Aires, the airline also offered to reschedule the plaintiffs on a flight later that week. The plaintiffs, however, refused the offer and purchased tickets with another airline to return to Boston that same day. While the plaintiffs alleged that they were "abandoned" and mistreated by the airline's employees in Buenos Aires, the court dismissed their claims with prejudice holding that they were preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA).2 Under the ADA, certain actions that relate to an airline's prices, routes or services are expressly preempted by the statute. Because the plaintiffs' claims relating to their alleged mistreatment were directly related to the airline's boarding procedures — which is an airline service,3 — the court held that they were preempted and dismissed them with prejudice.

Airline Deregulation Act Preempts Consumer Protection Claims

State consumer protection claims were held preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) in Banga v. Gundumolgula.4 In this case, the plaintiff sought a refund for her mother's tickets because a medical condition prevented her mother from flying. Having not received any refund after communicating with the travel agency, the plaintiff brought claims against the airline under California's Unfair Competition Law (UCL), a consumer protection statute, alleging that the airline engaged in unfair business practices, fraud, misrepresentation and deceit. Relying on Fitzgerald v. SkyWest Airlines, Inc.,5 and In re JetBlue Airways Corp. Privacy Litig.,6 the court held that the plaintiffs' refund claims directly related to the airline's reservation and ticketing procedures, which qualify as "services" under the ADA.

The plaintiff's request to amend her pleading also was denied on futility grounds because her claims were filed more than two years from the date of the flight. The airline's contract of carriage expressly required that any action for compensation be brought within two years of the date of arrival at the passenger's destination. Although recognizing that state law may provide a longer statute of limitation, the court nonetheless enforced the contractual limitation period.7     

Trial Court Disisses Contract and Discrimination Claims

In Aboeid v. Saudi Arabian Airlines Corp.,8 the court, after a four-day bench trial, ruled in the airline's favor and enforced the terms and conditions of the contract of carriage on the plaintiffs' denied boarding claims. Additionally, the court found no discriminatory treatment by the airline. The plaintiffs alleged discriminatory treatment on their departing flight from New York to Khartoum, Sudan via Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when they were allegedly segregated from the check-in line and wound up being the last passengers to board the aircraft. The plaintiffs also alleged breach of contract based on the airline's denial of their boarding on their return travel from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to New York; failure to provide alternative return transportation or accommodations; and failure to provide a refund for the cost of their unused tickets. The plaintiffs eventually purchased tickets on another airline and returned to New York through Cairo.

The court found in favor of the airline on the contract claims, holding that the plaintiffs failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they had complied with the airline's terms and conditions of carriage, which required them to arrive at the airport "early enough to complete departure procedures" and complete their check-in during the one-hour period prior to departure. The court also dismissed the claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, finding it was superfluous and not permitted under New York law because it was predicated on the same underlying facts as the contract claim.

In regard to the discrimination claim, the airline had proffered evidence that its actions during the boarding process likely resulted from the fact that the airline employees had to manually weigh the plaintiffs' 18 pieces of checked baggage. In light of this evidence, there was no presumption of discrimination and the burden shifted to the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the airline's reason for their delayed boarding (i.e., to check their numerous bags) was false and the actual reason was intentional discrimination. After assessing the evidence and credibility of the witnesses, the court held that the plaintiffs did not meet their burden of showing that the airline's conduct reflected intentional discrimination.

Arrest Claims Preempted by Montreal Convention and ADA

In Dogbe v. Delta Air Lines, Inc.,9 the court found treaty and ADA preemption of state law claims and granted Delta and KLM's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's amended complaint. The plaintiff sought damages resulting from his removal from a Delta flight and subsequent arrest and restriction from traveling on both airlines. The plaintiff was ticketed for travel from Norfolk, Va., to Accra, Ghana, via New York. After missing his connecting flight in New York due to flight delays, the plaintiff stood in line for several hours waiting to be rebooked on a flight departing the following week. Upon arriving for his rebooked flight, he requested wheelchair assistance due to the lingering pain in his legs from standing in line for several hours the week before. Once on the aircraft, he requested to move to a seat with more legroom. An altercation between the plaintiff and the flight attendant ensued, and the plaintiff was asked to disembark. He refused, and Delta called the airport police.

The court found that Article 17 of the Montreal Convention provided the exclusive cause of action arising from the plaintiff's removal from the flight. Based on the allegations in the amended complaint, the court held that the plaintiff could not state a cause of action under Article 17 because his injuries were not the result of an "accident," i.e., an unusual or unexpected event external to the passenger. Specifically, the court rejected the plaintiff's three theories of an "accident": (1) Delta's failure to accommodate the plaintiff's "medical condition and disability" of lingering leg pain, (2) Delta's giving of false information to the airport police, and (3) the use of force by the airport police. The court determined that there was "nothing unreasonable" about Delta declining to move the plaintiff to an empty seat in another class cabin or in the crew section — even if his lingering leg pain constituted a disability. The court further found that the plaintiff failed to identify a false statement made by Delta, and that any damages resulting from the plaintiff's interaction with the police were proximately caused by his refusal to disembark the aircraft upon Delta's request.

The court noted that the plaintiff's claims arising from Delta and KLM's refusal to sell the plaintiff a ticket for travel following the incident fell outside of the Montreal Convention. Nevertheless, the court determined that these claims were preempted by the ADA because they directly challenged Delta's ticketing and boarding services. Citing the Second Circuit's holding in In re Air Cargo Shipping Servs. Antitrust Litig.,10 the court further held that the same ADA preemption analysis applied to KLM, a foreign airline. Finding that any amendment to the amended complaint would be futile, the court dismissed all claims with prejudice against both airlines.

Preemption Continues to Be an Important Defense for Airlines

The foregoing decisions arose out of different fact patterns, but each demonstrates the continued utility of airlines asserting the preemptive effect of the Montreal Convention, the ADA, or other federal statutes to defend against passenger claims such as delay and discrimination. The defenses may be interposed successfully in a pre-answer motion to dismiss, on summary judgment, or at trial. The cases further highlight the import of an airline's adherence to the terms and conditions of its contract of carriage, or conversely, documentation of a plaintiff's failure to adhere to those terms and conditions, as a means ultimately to avoid liability and damages for breach of contract claims.  

Footnotes

1 No. 11-CV-6405, 2013 WL 4403930 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2013).

2 49 U.S.C. §41713(b)(1).

3 Citing Galbut v. Am. Airlines, 27 F. Supp.2d 146, 152-53 (E.D.N.Y. 2007).

4 No. 13-cv-00667, 2013 WL 3804046 (E.D. Cal. July 19, 2013).

5 155 Cal. App. 4th 411, 423, 65 Cal. Rptr. 3d 913 (2007).

6 379 F.Supp.2d 299, 316 (E.D.N.Y. 2005).

7 See, e.g., Miller v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 2012 WL 1155138 (S.D. Fla. 2012)(dismissing action where airline's contract of carriage required action to be brought within one year).

8 No. 10-CV-2518, __ F. Supp. 2d __, 2013 WL 4038740 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 9, 2013).

9 No. 11-CV-6289, 2013 WL 4522572 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 27, 2013).

10 697 F.3d 159 (2d Cir. 2012).

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