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Can I Sue an Airline?

Yes, there are many circumstances under which you may rightfully sue an airline. Common situations giving rise to airline complaints include:

  • Personal Injury
  • Physical and Emotional Distress
  • Loss/Damage to Luggage and Personal Property
  • Delayed or Canceled Flights
  • Failure to Honor or Refund Airline Tickets
  • Illegal Discrimination

These kinds of occurrences can create the basis for three major causes of action, which are:

  • Negligence
  • Breach of Contract
  • Civil Rights Violations

You may consider bringing your lawsuit in small claims court or in state and federal courts that hear cases exceeding the small claims limit. Generally, small claims lawsuits will only involve smaller value cases, and the dollar limit can vary depending on your state. If your case is strong enough, a personal injury lawyer can help you maximize your recovery beyond that limit. If your injuries are part of a larger pattern of violations committed by an airline, your lawyer may even be able to form a class action (a large-scale group lawsuit) against the airline.

What Is Negligence?

To put it simply, negligence is carelessness that leads to injury. To prove that an airline was negligent in causing injuries to your person, you must show the following four elements:

  1. Duty: You must show that the airline had a duty to prevent foreseeable harm to likely victims.
  2. Breach: The airline must have breached (violated) its duty, for instance by failing to follow reasonable safety procedures.
  3. Causation: The airline's failure to follow reasonable safety procedures must have been the cause of your personal injury.
  4. Damages: When you suffer a personal injury, you may incur pain and suffering and medical expenses. You must be able to substantiate these damages using evidence like medical records and bills.

For example, a pilot misses the runway and makes a very bumpy landing in a parking lot near the airport, not because of bad weather conditions or unforeseeable mechanical problems, but because he is drunk and the airline was careless in allowing him to operate the airplane. During the rough landing, violent jolts in the fuselage of the aircraft cause the luggage compartments to open. Falling debris results in injuries to your person, and you are taken to the hospital to receive treatment.

Here, the airline has a duty to ensure that you are transported safely. Carelessly allowing the pilot to fly the aircraft drunk is a breach of that duty because it jeopardizes your safety as a passenger. When you become injured as a result of falling debris, your injuries can be traced back to the airline's failure to ensure that you were transported safely.

The medical expenses that you incur at the hospital will substantiate the damages you have suffered as a result of the accident, and this will form the basis of a negligence action against the airline.

What Is Breach of Contract?

Similarly, a breach of contract case has four elements:

  1. Contract: A contract (agreement) must exist between the airline and its passenger. The airline's contract of carriage is an agreement between you and the airline that will set out the rights and obligations of both parties.
  2. Performance: As the passenger, you must show that you complied with the contract in good faith.
  3. Breach: The airline must have violated the contract by failing to fulfill its obligations.
  4. Damages: The airline's breach of the contract must cause harm to you.

For instance, suppose that you pay for a business class ticket with premium pricing, but the airline forces you into economy class and refuses to compensate you for the difference in cost. Moreover, video footage shows an airline employee failing to secure your luggage during check-in, resulting in the permanent loss of your valuable belongings. The airline refuses to acknowledge the oversight or to pay just compensation.

Here, you would argue that the airline's contract of carriage requires that, in exchange for payment, you would be provided with an appropriate-class ticket and secure transportation of your luggage to the flight destination. The fact that you paid for a business class ticket shows that you held up your end of the deal by performing in accordance with the contract.

On the other hand, the airline's refusal to place you in business class or to compensate you for your lost luggage shows that the airline failed to meet its end of the agreement. Because you have suffered damages in the form of lost luggage and wasted money, you may have a successful breach of contract lawsuit against the airline.

What Are Civil Rights Violations?

Under federal law, including 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and sections 41310(a) and 40127(a) of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (“ADA"), “[a]n air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry."

Suppose that a flight attendant asks you to give up your seat to another passenger, not for safety reasons or economically valid reasons relating to the class of ticket purchased, but rather because you are told that people of your gender are not allowed to sit in the row you have occupied. Here, you may be able to bring a civil rights lawsuit as a result of the airline's discrimination against you.

Other Examples

Let's say that on an important business trip to New York, an attendant on your flight serves you expired food. The resulting poisoning lands you in the hospital. Here, because the airline would have a duty of care to safely transport you to your destination, you may consider suing the airline for negligence to recover your medical expenses.

Suppose again that flight to New York has been interrupted, this time due to the airline's inability to weather a storm that forced the company to suddenly ground all of its planes. Though you may be tempted to sue, you realize that the contract of carriage (flight agreement) between the passengers and the airline specifically provides that, aside from safety regulations mandating that the flight be grounded, a clause in the contract called a force majeure disclaimer explicitly states that Acts of God, such as natural disasters, excuse the airline from any obligation to get you to New York during the dangerous storm.

If, however, the airline refuses to provide you with a refund or travel voucher, you may have a viable claim in court. You will need to show that the airline violated a refund policy under its contract of carriage. All major airlines provide their terms and conditions of service to passengers at the time that a ticket is purchased. For example, United Airlines has an entire page on its website detailing its contract of carriage.

Take Legal Action by Contacting a Lawyer

Because aviation law is complex and the airline industry has high-powered lawyers to fight you every step of the way, an experienced attorney can handle all your paperwork including filing your written complaint with the court clerk. An attorney can help level the playing field against giant common carriers (passenger transport companies) and explain the legal process to you in simpler terms.

A personal injury attorney may be able to give you legal advice regarding any physical or emotional injuries you may have suffered in connection with an airline or flight experience. Most personal injury attorneys do not charge up-front fees and instead work on contingency, which means that their fees come out of any settlement they obtain for you. They also typically offer free consultations.

If your consumer rights as a ticketholder have also been affected, such as by a major airline's failure to adhere to acceptable refund policies, you may also want to consider consulting with a consumer protection attorney affiliated with your local bar association.

The Department of Transportation

If you are not sure whether a lawyer can help you, consider doing research with the Department of Transportation. Established by Congress in 1966, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT or DOT) mandates safety guidelines for America's transportation carriers, including airlines. The DOT's Consumer's Guide to Small Claims Courts is an excellent starting point to help you determine whether you have a case against an airline.

One important DOT agency, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), regulates air travel and the manufacture, operation, and maintenance of aircraft and airline safety procedures. If suing isn't an option, both the DOT and the FAA provide online forms for consumer referrals and complaints:

The DOT further promotes aviation consumer protection and airline responsibility through several online resources which can help you ascertain whether you have a case. These include:

Not Sure You Have a Claim? A Lawyer Can Help

If you're still unsure whether you have a claim or whether it's worth hiring a lawyer, set up a free consultation with a personal injury attorney to help you decide how to best move forward.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.

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