A flight attendant on a Spirit Airlines flight asked a passenger seated in an emergency exit row to stop using his cell phone while she conducted the exit row safety briefing. The parties disagreed about whether the passenger complied with the instruction, and gave conflicting accounts of the ensuing interactions between the passenger and the crew. The passenger eventually deplaned before the flight departed, though the parties disputed whether he did so voluntarily.
The passenger brought a pro se lawsuit against Spirit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ("SDNY"). The passenger pled several tort claims, as well as claims for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Spirit sought summary judgment on the grounds that the Airline Deregulation Act ("ADA"), which expressly preempts any state law "related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier," preempted the passenger's claims.
The SDNY applied the three-part test that courts in the Second Circuit routinely apply to analyze whether the ADA preempts tort claims (the Rombom test). Addressing the first and second parts of the test, the Court analyzed whether the conduct at issue related to an airline service and, if so, whether it did so directly or tenuously. The Court concluded that, because the passenger's "claims related to defendants' decision to remove [him] from the plane," and because "'[t]here are few acts more fundamental to the service of air travel than the decision by an airplane crew whether or not to transport a passenger,'" the claims at issue directly related to an airline service. Addressing the third part of the Rombom test, the Court examined whether the alleged tortious conduct was reasonably necessary in order to provide the service. Because there was no evidence that the airline has discriminated against the passenger, physically injured him, had him arrested or the like, the passenger had failed to establish that the airline's conduct was not reasonably necessary to provide its service. Therefore, the Court concluded that the ADA preempted all of the passenger's tort claims.
Relying on the United States Supreme Court's holding in Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, the SDNY concluded that the ADA preempted the passenger's claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The Court also struck the passenger's demand for punitive damages because the ADA "forbids the invocation of state law to enlarge or enhance remedies for breach beyond those provided in the contract."
Addressing the passenger's breach-of-contract claim, the Court explained that "'[t]he Supreme Court has held that the ADA does not preempt state -law based adjudication of routine breach-ofcontract claims, so long as courts confine themselves to enforcing the parties' bargain.'" Because the record contained conflicting evidence about whether Spirit refused to transport the passenger or whether he deplaned voluntarily, and whether the passenger had acted in a manner that would have permitted Spirit to remove him from the flight under the terms of Spirit's Contract of Carriage, the Court denied Spirit's request for summary judgment on the plaintiff's breach-of contract claim. Starker v. Spirit Airlines, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149702 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 3, 2019).
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