Just over a week ago, a man was forcefully removed from his seat in a United Airlines plane. A lawsuit is now ensuing, which brings up interesting issues that can apply not just to those injured while on an airline, but have widespread application to many different areas of personal injury law.
Man Forcibly Removed From Plane
As you may already know from the publicity of the footage of the incident, United Airlines had overbooked a flight and had to find a passenger willing to give up his or her seat. According to reports, the passengers who were asked to deplane were chosen at random. One such man was a 69-year old doctor, who refused to give up his seat because he had an important medical procedure that he was scheduled to perform, and thus needed to be on that flight.
At that point, chaos ensued. The man was forcefully removed from his seat. Videos of the incident abound on the internet, showing the man, bloodied, being forcibly dragged through the airplane against his will. According to his lawyer, the victim suffered a broken nose, broken sinuses, and a concussion.
Can an Airline Remove a Passenger?
There does not seem to be any doubt that an airline can remove a passenger if the flight is overbooked; in fact, many flights are purposely overbooked to account for no-shows. Much like the fine print on cruise tickets, there is also fine print on your airline ticket, which does give airlines the right to remove passengers in the case of overbooking.
So why are there not more incidents like this? Federal regulation requires that airlines ask if anybody will voluntarily give up a seat before compelling people to leave. This is why in many cases airlines will offer financial incentives like free flights to those who give up their seats. In fact, the Department of Transportation mandates that passengers kicked off planes be “compensated,” but does not state what appropriate compensation is. Still, many people take the offers, and there is not usually a problem.
Additionally, most airlines will simply deny boarding to passengers who will not be permitted to fly. Refusing someone entrance to the plane is much less invasive, less physical, and less disruptive, than removing someone who has already taken a seat inside the plane.
This is where the problem lies. The DOT does not state what happens if a passenger simply refuses to leave, or what an airline is legally able to do about it. The DOT does not specifically authorize the use of force to remove passengers, although federal law does make it illegal to refuse orders given by an airline’s crew.
Lawsuit Alleges Excessive Force
The lawyer for the passenger is now suing United, and the lesson is an important one. In personal injury law, sometimes the question is not whether something can be done, but how it is done, or whether it is done carelessly or negligently.
In this case, there does not seem to be dispute over United’s legal right to overbook and deny a passenger a seat. The issue becomes whether United asserted its right carelessly, negligently, and with excessive force and violence, which is what the passenger’s attorney is alleging.
To analogize, we often see this in bouncer or security related cases. Surely, a private business establishment can kick out customers for any reason. It can employ bouncers to remove those who are belligerent with force. When a bouncer (and sometimes, multiple bouncers) breaks someone’s teeth and concusses them, however, the business is often sued on the basis that the bouncer used excessive force, and more force than necessary to assert the business’ rights.
This is also often the case in self defense cases. Surely individuals can protect themselves if they feel that they are in danger. But that does not always mean that they have a right to shoot someone to do it. In many cases, the lengths that a person goes to in order to protect him or herself exceeds the limits of what is reasonable for the situation.
Multiple Actors Involved
Again, much like cruise ship injury cases, this airline case may also involve multiple actors, some of whom may or may not have been acting under the direction and control of United. For example, airport security who apparently dragged the man off the place, are not United employees, but are employees of the City of Chicago. However, the victim’s attorney alleges that because the captain is the head of the plane, it is United that is ultimately responsible.
Making issues more difficult, just because the plane says United on the side does not even mean the plane’s crew are United employees. In many cases, airlines will contract out to other companies for flight crew and staffing. Here, the crew were actually employees of Republic Airways Holdings.
Training Will be at Issue
In any case that involves excessive force or negligent performance of a right or duty, the issue of training is always at the forefront. Litigation usually involves experts, who will provide opinions as to whether staff was provided thorough and accurate training in how to deal with certain situations.
The victim and his experts will likely opine that there were other ways to deal with the situation, that force was used too quickly, or that the individuals removing the passenger did not have the training necessary to do so without causing injury. The case should be an interesting lesson in how a large company properly discharges its duties, even when it is otherwise acting within its legal rights.
If you are injured as the result of excessive force by any business or company, you have rights. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your case.