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Supreme Court Says Yes to 'Bumped' Passenger: He Can Sue the Airline : Ruling: Ticket-holders who involuntarily miss flights may sue in state courts, but not for big punitive awards.

March 06, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER: Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips

These are words that kindle fantasies of retribution in the minds of airline passengers: Montana lawyer William West, involuntarily bumped from a 1986 flight from Great Falls to Washington, sues Northwest Airlines, wins and is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court wrote the end of that tale on Feb. 21, when it refused to hear Northwest Airlines' appeal in the case.

But the case is not the victory for air travelers that it may seem. Industry authorities agree that involuntarily bumped passengers already had a right to sue in state courts for compensatory damages. What those passengers didn't have was the right to seek big-money punitive damages--and they still don't.

Eight years ago, when West was bumped from that flight to Washington, the airline offered him an alternative flight several hours later and $198 for his trouble. Instead, West turned down the offer and went to court in Montana seeking $10,000 in compensatory damages--that is, money to cover actual losses he believes he suffered by missing out on a conference in Washington--and $50,000 in punitive damages, to discourage the airline from continuing such practices. Northwest argued that the intercession of a state court in the matter would amount to trespassing on turf that should be covered by federal agencies.

After much legal wrangling, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California and eight other Western states) last year ruled that West could seek the compensatory damages, but not punitive damages. The Supreme Court decision allowed that to stand. (In order to actually collect that $10,000, West will have to follow through and prevail in further litigation in lower courts.)

"We don't think this really changes the airline-passenger relationship. All it does is reaffirm that under state laws, passengers have a right to sue," said Chris Chiames, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., which lobbies for the airlines in Washington.

Cornish F. Hitchcock, an attorney for the Public Citizen Litigation Group who has worked on West's case since 1989, agreed that the case changes little for passengers. He noted that since 1962, federal law has provided that air passengers who are involuntarily bumped can either accept an airline's offer of compensation or take the issue to court. But awards have not been awe-inspiring. West's potential award of $10,000, Hitchcock said, probably amounts to less than the value of the attorney's time spent on the 8-year-old case.

"For the average traveler who does not happen to be a lawyer," said Hitchcock, "we have found that taking either the money or a coupon (the usual make-good offerings volunteered by airlines) makes sense if your only loss is inconvenience or delay."

Many rules of bumping are laid out by federal law. Hitchcock summarized them this way:

When airlines are overbooked, employees typically ask for volunteers to take another flight in exchange for compensation, which can vary. If there aren't enough volunteers, the passengers who arrive at the gate last are often the first ones bumped.

If you are bumped from a flight originating in the U.S., your airline will probably try to place you on the next available flight to the same destination. If that flight is scheduled to arrive one to two hours later than your originally scheduled arrival time, Hitchcock said, the airline will generally refund up to $200. If the secondary flight is scheduled to deliver you more than four hours later than your originally scheduled arrival time, Hitchcock said, the standard refund is up to $400 or your original fare. Instead of cash, carriers may also offer coupons for domestic travel.

Compensation may not be required, however, if you arrive late at the gate yourself, if your flight is canceled altogether (thereby "bumping" everyone aboard), if circumstances force the airline to switch planes for a flight, if the airline bumps you up a class on your catch-up flight, or if your plane has 60 or fewer seats.

How often are passengers involuntarily bumped? The federal Department of Transportation, which monitors airline performance, calculates that among the nine major U.S. airlines, roughly one passenger in 10,000 is involuntarily bumped. But the figures can vary widely.


Correction: On Feb. 13, I mentioned that Egypt had recently changed policy and begun admitting travelers with South African stamps on their passports. In fact, Egyptian tourism officials say, they have admitted such travelers for many years.

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