South Florida Federal District Court Denies Dismissal of Airline Negligence Suit

Can an airline be subject to negligence liability for denying boarding to a customer? Although it did not fully address this question, a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Pipino v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., assures that we will get more discussion of the issue.

The plaintiff in this case was a ticketed passenger for a flight from New York to Tampa on Delta Airlines, the defendant in this case. The plaintiff alleges that an agent for the airline denied her the privilege of boarding because the agent believed she was intoxicated. The plaintiff, however, alleges that she was suffering from a panic attack and that the airline’s refusal to let her board the plane and failure to obtain medical attention for her caused both emotional and psychological harm. Following this incident, the plaintiff brought suit against Delta to redress these injuries. The airline moved to dismiss, arguing that venue in the Southern District of Florida was improper and that the plaintiff’s claims were otherwise preempted under federal law. The district court, however, found both arguments unavailing and denied the airline’s motion to dismiss.

First, the district court summarily rejected the defendant’s venue argument. A corporation is considered to reside “in any judicial district in which such [corporation] is subject to the court’s personal jurisdiction with respect to the civil action in question.” 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c)(2). The complaint alleged that the airline had a place of business in Florida and was subject to general personal jurisdiction in Florida because it availed itself of the privileges of conducting business there. Since the defendant provided no evidence rebutting these allegations, the court determined that it had personal jurisdiction over the airline and therefore that venue was proper in Florida under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1), which provides that venue is proper in “a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located.”

The district court then addressed the question of preemption. Specifically, the court needed to determine whether the Federal Aviation Act (“FAA”) preempts the plaintiff’s common law negligence claim. The FAA’s preemption clause, which was incorporated by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, provides, in pertinent part, “a State . . . may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.” 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1). The Eleventh Circuit, in which the Southern District of Florida falls, has defined services to include “items such as ticketing, boarding procedures, provision of food and drink, and baggage handling, in addition to the transportation itself. These matters are all appurtenant and necessarily included with the contract of carriage between the passenger or shipper and the airline.” Branche v. Airtran Airways, Inc., 342 F.3d 1248, 1256-57 (11th Cir. 2003). Although the scope of services as defined by the Eleventh Circuit appears broad, “this definition does not result in the preemption of state law personal injury claims arising from the allegedly negligent operation of an airplane.” Psalmond v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 13 Civ. 2327, 2014 WL 1232149, at *4 (N.D. Ga. Mar. 24, 2014). Indeed, the court noted that district courts have routinely found that the FAA does not preempt common law claims sounding in negligence, for these claims rarely implicate the deregulation of the economic and contractual features of air transportation. Although boarding was implicated, the court nonetheless concluded that the allegations did not seem to arise from the contractual or economic aspects of boarding.

Although this is just the first step in this case, the adjudication of Pipino will hopefully provide greater clarity on the scope of negligence liability in cases involving airlines. Indeed, as the opinion noted, federal law can preempt many negligence claims brought against airlines. See, e.g., Smith v. Am. W. Airlines, Inc., 44 F. 3d 344, 347 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc) (noting that removal from flight based on apparent intoxication was preempted because the removal “involved . . . alleged breach of the airline’s duty to transport the plaintiff”). Although most people may have a rudimentary understanding of negligence, many would not understand the legal complexities of preemption or how to best structure a complaint so as to avoid the risk of preemption. It therefore behooves anyone considering taking legal action to redress a harm to consider finding experienced counsel who can help him or her handle these particular legal concerns. The South Florida airplane accident attorneys at FK Legal have represented many injured Floridian flyers, and they are capable of assisting you with a possible injury claim. If you’ve recently been injured in a possible case of negligence and would like to know more about your legal options, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.

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