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Battered Passenger Should Definitely Sue! Why United Could Be In Deep Legal Trouble After Viral Video

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Remember when air travel was a luxury enjoyed by excited passengers who donned their Sunday best before embarking on a grand journey? Well, those days sure are over. In case the $4 sodas aren’t obnoxious enough these days, one airline has completely transcended the bounds of civility. United Airlines, of recent throw-off-passengers-with-peanut-allergy fame, has crossed yet another line. Yesterday’s Chicago-to-Louisville flight was apparently overbooked – and when no one volunteered to be bumped, the airline took things to a whole new level. Four passengers were randomly computer-selected for removal, and then, United lost its mind. It insisted that one passenger– a doctor who explained that he was expected in a Louisville hospital to see patients the next morning– was bumped from the flight. Literally.

According to nearby passengers, police boarded the plane, threw the unwilling bumpee against an armrest, nearly knocked him out, and then dragged him off the plane. Onlookers gasped and yelled, “oh my God, look at what you’re doing to him!” and the draggers just kept dragging. Eventually, the dragged doctor actually re-boarded the plane, this time with a bloody face and disoriented demeanor. A medical crew got on board, and frightened passengers were told to go back to the gate so that officials could “tidy up” before the plane took off.

Let’s be clear here. Airlines can, in many instances, do whatever they want. We’re living in post-9/11 skies these days, and airlines have wide latitude to throw off everyone from suspected terrorists to the highly-allergic. And if the flight is simply overbooked, airlines can throw off whoever they want in that case too. Being thrown off an airplane is called “involuntary denied boarding ,” and there are rules. The airline must first seek volunteers to give up their reservation for some kind of compensation, usually money. If they must bump a passenger off the flight, the airline must 1) notify the passenger of his or her rights in writing 2) compensate the passenger with a check or cash unless they can rebook you on a flight that arrives within an hour of your original scheduled arrival. Bumped passengers are entitled to 200 percent of the one-way ticket price, capped at $650.

But the bag of magical powers airlines have does not include the right to batter, frighten or embarrass their passengers. And, in this case, while it appears the cops did the actual removal of the passenger, the airline and the police department could still be in some deep legal trouble.

Professor John Banzhaf, from the George Washington University Law School, believes that the passenger has a very good case and that the force used to remove the doctor may even be considered excessive in this scenario.

“In addition to the tort of simply removing a passenger even if the force to do so was reasonable, it might be argued that the force used here was excessive,” Banzhaf told LawNewz.com  “In other words, even if somehow the law permitted a passenger to be removed by force under these circumstances, it would appear that the force used here was excessive, and that the airline acquiesced in the use of that excessive force.”

Of course, the legal standard for what would be considered “excessive force” would be significantly higher if those dragging the passenger down the aisle were police officers acting in their official capacity.  From the video, it appears that some of those involved may well have been uniformed police officers, and some reports indicate that a plain-clothes officer was the initial actor. If, in fact, these were police officers, additional questions of legal significance would arise.  For example, it would be important to determine whether the police were acting of their independent capacity, or as agents of the airline.  The police department could find itself defending a lawsuit; however, it would be far more difficult for any passenger to prove that force was “excessive” when the defendant is a law-enforcement professional.  Furthermore, police acting in an official capacity are often immune from liability altogether, which could certainly put a damper on any lawsuit.  Depending on the specifics of when, why, and how the passenger was removed from the flight, this incident could result in a lawsuit against multiple defendants, each of whom will employ multiple defenses.

“The footage shot by another passenger certainly doesn’t look good for the airline. We are all cognizant for the need of heightened awareness and security on airlines post 9-11.  However when and  where does that need conflict with an individual’s rights on an airplane? Why didn’t the airline resolve the overbooking problem at the gate prior to all the passengers boarding the flight?”  Personal injury attorney David Eisbrouch told LawNewz.com, “These are some questions I would be asking if I represented the passenger.  At a minimum United personnel should be reaching out to the good doctor asap in order to resolve this matter before it goes any further.”

Frankly, if the doctor had been permanently removed from the flight, his patients might even have had good grounds to bring suit, Professor John Banzhaf agreed and told LawNewz.com

“Indeed, if any of his patients suffered because he was not able to provide them with timely care, they might even have a valid legal action since the passenger told the airline’s agents that he was a doctor who was flying back to see patients, so that part would be entirely foreseeable,” Banzhaf stated.  Something tells me that that’s just what the doctor told airline personnel before his bruise-covered self was escorted back onto that airplane.

What will happen? My money is on a quick and private settlement for Dr. Stubborn. As for the onlookers, I wouldn’t rule out some ancillary lawsuits for emotional distress for the surrounding passengers and any young children. I’m sure those will settle too, which is unfortunate, because this would be a fabulous trial. The combination of the universally-hated “involuntary denied boarding,” plus violent removal of a committed doctor, plus an actual video tape of horrified onlookers is a lawsuit made in verdict heaven.

Elura Nanos is an attorney and LawNewz.com columnist. 

Editor’s note: this story was updated to include additional legal analysis, and to make note of the fact that the men who dragged the passenger off the plane appear to be police officers, which could impact any relevant legal claims.  

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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