United Airlines’ reputation has taken a bruising since Sunday, when police forcibly removed a passenger from a flight in Chicago that the company initially said was overbooked. But will the airline face legal challenges as a result of the incident?
Aviation attorney David Katzman, with Katzman Lampert & McClune, believes the passenger, David Dao, has “every right to bring legal action.”
Dao has retained Chicago personal injury lawyer Thomas Demetrio, according to media reports. Demetrio was not immediately available for comment.
As for what claims Dao could bring against the Chicago-based airline, Katzman, who has no connection to the passenger or the airline, says that Dao has so much evidence stacked in his favor that “you could hand this to a first-year lawyer” and they would win the case.
Especially damning is the fact there is video footage, which has since gone viral, taken by fellow passengers who captured agents forcefully pulling Dao from his seat and dragging him down the aisle to get him off the plane.
“The passenger has pretty good legal remedies available,” Katzman says, adding that Dao could bring claims of assault and battery, as well as infliction of emotional distress.
As the result of Nader v. Allegheny Airlines, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, airlines can overbook flights but they must first ask for passengers to volunteer to leave the plane. If there are no volunteers, the airline can then select passengers.
“There’s a process,” Katzman says. “Nowhere in the process of the overbook situation is the right to commit assault and battery.”
In United’s case, airline employees were two hours behind schedule for a flight scheduled from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, according to reports.
Passengers said that the airline announced it was overbooked and started to offer $400 travel vouchers. According to The New York Times, no customers acted on the offer, and the amount jumped to $800 and later $1,000. Still, after no customers cashed in on the vouchers, passengers reportedly started boarding the plane but were told that four United employees needed to be on the flight and the plane was not leaving until four passengers gave up their seats.
United general counsel Brett Hart did not respond to a request for an interview about the incident. United CEO Oscar Munoz made multiple public statements regarding the incident, with the most recent coming on Tuesday.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Munoz said. “I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
Munoz said the company will conduct a “thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.” The results of the review will be made public by April 30.
Philadelphia aviation attorney Arthur Wolk agrees with Katzman that Dao is within his rights to pursue legal action, adding that United violated its own contract. He says this is not a case of denial of boarding, because Dao was already lawfully boarded and seated on the plane when the forcible removal occurred.
Wolk has read the 45-page contract of carriage that United has for its passengers.
Had the airline asked the passenger to not board the aircraft beforehand, United would have been better protected, Wolk claims. “I downloaded [the contract] and read every word,” he says. “It does not give the airline the right once passengers have boarded to forcibly remove them. If a passenger committed a criminal act or interfered with the flight crew, that would allow them to remove the passenger, but not in a situation where the passenger was lawfully boarded with a valid ticket.”
Roy Goldberg, partner at Steptoe & Johnson, declined to comment on the handling of Dao’s removal from the flight but emphasized that airlines can legally deny boarding to passengers.
“Nobody has the right to go from Point A to Point B,” he says. “Think about weather, mechanical issues. You can’t sue an airline because your flight’s an hour late.”
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