December 27, 2010
Another day, another blizzard. The northeastern United States is recovering after 20 to 30 inches of snow fell over the weekend. The storm has severely disrupted transportation throughout the region, rendering highways impassable and stranding subway riders in New York City. Like thousands of others attempting to fly to or from a city in the Upper Midwest during our own snow-filled weekend of December 11-12, I ended up stranded in an airport (in my case the Detroit Metro Airport) due to flight cancellations. During the extra 24 hours I spent in Detroit, I had ample opportunity to think about possible legal issues surrounding such a situation.
Obviously, airlines include language in their ticket purchase agreements releasing them from liability for cancellations or delays. I wanted to check, though, to see if any resourceful litigants had found ways around those exculpatory clauses.
I tried a WestlawNext search in All State and Federal Jurisdictions for: liability for flight delay or cancellation (for Westlaw.com users, try an ALLCASES search for delay! cancel! /5 plane airplane flight /s liab! or sy,di(delay! cancel! /5 plane airplane flight /p liab! breach!), which should retrieve some comparable results). A number of the results involve plaintiffs asserting tort claims, e.g., intentional infliction of emotional distress, to circumvent the bar placed by the contractual language. Those claims generally found little success, with one court writing:
Plaintiff must establish both the existence and the violation of a duty owed to her by Defendant to establish liability in tort. . . It appears that Plaintiff does not complain of any duty of care owed by Defendant separate and apart from the Conditions of Carriage. . . Even if Plaintiff’s allegations could be construed as a duty separate and apart from the contract, Defendant had no duty to provide Plaintiff with a stress-free flight environment. Ray v. American Airlines, Inc., 2009 WL 921124 (W.D. Ark. Apr. 2, 2009).