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How To Sue An Airline

How To Sue An Airline

 from Travel ConfidentialTM   newsletter

 March, 2000

            Air travelers who have been wronged may find that there’s nothing more intimidating than seeking legal action against an airline.  From the smaller inconveniences of flight delays and lost luggage to the overwhelming tragedies of personal injury and loss of life, a traveler or family must pit themselves against a seemingly faceless conglomerate.  By knowing how to initiate the legal process, many consumers have found a resolution when suing an airline.

 Minor Claims

             For those consumers seeking a remedy in some of the chief areas of air travel complaints, namely flight delays and luggage claims, San Francisco travel attorney Alexander Anolik recommends small claims court.  “I believe passengers should have rights to remedies without the cost of an attorney,” he asserts. But under what circumstances can these complaints give rise to a lawsuit?

             With regard to flight delays due to an insufficient amount of equipment.  Sound legal ground also exists when a plane “pushes back from the blocks” or leaves the gate on time but sits on the runway for an hour or more because of known flight delays.  He asserts that airlines, in an attempt to repair their image in the midst of rampant flight delays, often resort to this tactic so they can show an on-time departure.  If passengers can prove that this was the case, then they can sue.  Anolik admits, however, this is “usually a tough one to prove.”  He adds, “The only way they can find out is when they hear everyone at the airport was delayed for hours.”  With rampant delays, it will be easier for passengers who sit on the runway for extended periods of time to prove that the airline was more concerned with protecting its image.

             The main obstacle passengers encounter when seeking legal reparation for mishandled baggage claims is the large number of airline restrictions.  Anolik urges, “The consumer must realize that the airlines have tariffs [or rules] that prohibit compensation for nearly everything when filing a claim.”  The tariffs differ for each airline but typically include items such as laptop computers, jewelry and electrical appliances.

             Currently, tariffs are listed in the fine print on the back of each airline ticket and, as a result, many travelers are unaware of these exclusions.  Anolik maintains that the tariffs need to be posted where passengers check in.  He believes the carriers have been reluctant to do so because “everyone would want to take things out of their luggage.  This in turn, would cause flight delays.”

            Travelers who have baggage claims arising out of international flights face an additional obstacle.  Anolik points out that luggage liability limits differ on international air travel due to the Warsaw Convention.  Drafted in 1929, this treaty sets the limit at $9.77 per pound of baggage.

             For domestic travel, airlines recently raised the luggage liability limit from $1,250 to $2,500 with their implementations of the Customers First plans.  Anolik contends that while it is very difficult to recover this amount, there are certain circumstances where tariffs would not apply.  For example, e-tickets are an exception because consumers do not receive a paper ticket with the restrictions listed.  “If the airline loses your luggage without giving you the written restrictions, you could sue on the legal foundation of negligence,” states Anolik.

             While lawsuits are sometimes necessary to resolve these disputes, passengers should exercise other options before using an airline.

             File a complaint directly with the airline’s customer service department via written correspondence or telephone.  Consumers can also file a complaint with PassengerRights.com.  The consumer advocacy website will then forward the complaint to the customer service department of the appropriate airline as well as the Department of Transportation.  In either case, consumers should allow 30 to 45 days for the carrier to respond to their complaint.

             If the airline fails to issue a response during this time period, the traveler may attempt to contact the customer service department a second time or re-submit the complaint through the Passenger Rights website.

             In the event customer service still fails to address the issue or refuses compensation, then the consumer’s final recourse is to take the complaint to small claims court.

Serious Injury/Wrongful Death

             When the general public first hears that litigation is under way for an air disaster, the common perception is that a class action lawsuit—one where the court certifies a single complaint on behalf of a group—will be the likely method of recovery.  Victims’ air crash lawyer David E. Rapoport asserts that the exact opposite is true.  “A class action has never been certified in an aircraft case.  Class action is not a big player in aircraft litigation.”  Rapaport, a Chicago civil trial attorney who specializes in air disasters such as Swissair Flight 111 and Egypt Air Flight 990, explains, “To try and package hundreds of thousands of these cases together is to significantly lower the aggregate payout.”

             Rapoport points out that there are certain obstacles that can impede the families of victims from initiating the legal process.  The first of which is that they do not know anyone who has been through this type of tragedy before.  He advises families to be aware that they are given a substantial amount of time under the law to initiate legal action against an airline in the case of a crash.  The amount of time allowed varies, but no time limit is shorter than one year.  “It gives the family time to grieve.”

             Families should also exercise caution when negotiating directly with the airline’s insurance company.  Consistently, the smallest settlements have been distributed to those families who settle the claim themselves through direct negotiations.  “Everybody that I know wishes that the crash never happened and they didn’t have these legal rights.  They just want to be treated fairly, yet they have no idea what fair is.  They have no idea what they are owed.”

             Once they are ready to initiate litigation, how do families know who to trust with their case in order to ensure a fair outcome?  Rapoport suggests that they look for attorneys who have at least a decade of experience in the field of air crash litigation.  In addition to handling both settlements and trials regarding serious injury and wrongful death, counsel should be fully appointed members of steering committees, select groups that play a lead role in attacking the fault issues of air disasters.

             There are currently 20 to 30 law firms nationwide with attorneys that meet these qualifications.  Families can find such counsel by:

  • Steering clear from attorneys who send out promotional packets soon after the crash.
  • Going to a lawyer they trust and asking for a referral to an expert attorney.
  • Obtaining assistance from private support groups, such as the National Air Disaster Alliance.
  • Utilizing the internet, searching specifically for air crash litigation.
  • Noting attorneys who are named in newspapers or other publications during disaster coverage.
  • Checking the public orders of previous crashes to determine the attorneys who sat on those steering committees.

            The other key client issue in suing an airline is saying yes or no to a settlement proposal.  “A great majority of air disasters are resolved in one to three years.”

 from Travel ConfidentialTM   newsletter


March, 2000

           Air travelers who have been wronged may find that there’s nothing more intimidating than seeking legal action against an airline.  From the smaller inconveniences of flight delays and lost luggage to the overwhelming tragedies of personal injury and loss of life, a traveler or family must pit themselves against a seemingly faceless conglomerate.  By knowing how to initiate the legal process, many consumers have found a resolution when suing an airline.