In Wilson v. Caribbean Airlines Ltd., plaintiff was traveling from Guyana to New York on Caribbean Airlines Limited ("CAL"). Prior to boarding, plaintiff's suitcase was taken to a staging area and loaded onto the flight. Upon arrival in New York, plaintiff was selected for a customs inspection that revealed more than two kilograms of cocaine in his suitcase. Plaintiff was arrested and released on bail, but the charges were subsequently dropped. Plaintiff filed suit alleging state law tort claims that CAL negligently handled his baggage, allowing the drugs to be planted without his knowledge. CAL moved for summary judgment arguing preemption under the Airline Deregulation Act ("ADA").
Per the ADA, a state may not enact or enforce a law "related to a price, route, or service" of an air carrier. In deciding CAL's motion for summary judgment, the court applied the three-part test first enunciated by then-District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor in Rombom v. United Airlines, Inc., 867 F. Supp. 214 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), to determine whether plaintiff's tort claim was preempted.
The threshold inquiry under the Rombom test is whether the "activity at issue in the claim is an airline service." Plaintiff argued the relevant activity was "securing passengers' baggage from drug trafficking" and "protecting passengers' baggage from having drugs planted in it." The court found that those acts were part of CAL's agreement to transport the baggage and that "baggage handling is, without question, an airline service."
Since the activity implicated a "service", the court moved to the second prong, which looks at whether the claim "affects the airline service directly or only tenuously, remotely, or peripherally." Plaintiff argued that allowing drugs to be placed in his bag was not directly related to safety or baggage handling because it is the opposite of what a passenger expects. The court found that the end result occurred because of a failure to take adequate precautions, which directly impacts the airline's baggage handling procedures.
The final prong is whether the "underlying tortious conduct was reasonably necessary to the provision of the service." The court found this prong satisfied because plaintiff only claimed that CAL negligently failed to prevent the planting of drugs from happening. There was no evidence that CAL or its employees were involved in the drug plant.
Based on the foregoing, the court granted CAL's motion for summary judgment. Per the court, this was a "difficult conclusion" because it left plaintiff without a remedy for "serious damage arising from a situation for which he bears no fault." The court noted, "[p]erhaps it is some comfort to believe that this case might supply a vehicle by which some higher authority can finally and authoritatively decide the extent of the ADA's preemptive effect on tort claims."
Wilson v. Caribbean Airlines Ltd., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124051 (E.D.N.Y. Jul. 13, 2022).
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