As a flight attendant for a major airline, I’ve attended countless classes on cultural awareness, sexual harassment and passenger diversity. I’ve been told how to talk, where not to put my hands — even when to laugh and when to put a sock in it. All of this comes with an increasing fear of lawsuits. And small wonder: These days, airlines often settle lawsuits, even when the plaintiff’s case is weak, just to avoid bad publicity and lawyers’ fees. Of course, this practice opens the floodgates to some pretty interesting lawsuits. Here is my collection of the 'Top 10 Wacko Airline Lawsuits'.
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1. Pink Foul: In 1995, a 24-year-old male filed a lawsuit against a major international airline for not hiring him as a flight attendant because he was homosexual. First of all, how would they know his sexual preference? I don’t think there is a check-off box for that on the application. And second, call me crazy, but isn’t “flight attendant” one of the most popular careers for gay men?
2. What’s the Buzz? A middle-aged woman filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines for public humiliation after a Delta security agent approached her on the plane before takeoff and informed her that something in her checked bag was vibrating. She was then escorted off the plane in full sight of onlookers to identify the suspect device, which she told the agent was probably an adult toy that she had picked up on her trip. Not satisfied with her answer, the agent instructed the woman to hold the device up and turn it on. When she did, the security agent allegedly began to “laugh hysterically.” Embarrassed or not, the passenger got the names of more than 10 witnesses for her case.
3. Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz: Now that airlines are doing away with their complimentary food service, the quality of the food has certainly gotten better. But two years ago, a businessman filed a lawsuit against an airline saying his meal was so bad that he blew a multimillion-dollar account. Why? Because during his meeting he was running to the bathroom every few minutes. I don’t know how he could prove the airline food was at fault, but I’ve become violently ill from airline food once or twice in my 15 years with the airlines, and it’s not pretty. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than being stuck in one of those airplane lavatories for hours on end.
4. Cut the Fat: A lawyer from Ohio filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines claiming that he suffered “embarrassment, severe discomfort, mental anguish and severe emotional distress” from having to sit next to a passenger so overweight that they were “figuratively married from the right kneecap to the shoulder” for the duration of the flight. The plaintiff alleged that the airline breached its contract to provide him with a full seat. He was seeking unspecified damages but was open to a settlement. Sounds like somebody wanted a free upgrade.
5. Everybody’s a Comedian: Southwest Airlines is known for its humorous announcements and antics, but when the humor is taken as prejudice, lawsuits tend to fly. A flight attendant made the following announcement to get everyone seated before departure: “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. Pick a seat, ’cause it’s time to go.” At the time, there were only two women still standing, both African-Americans, and they took offense at the use of the nursery rhyme, which once had quite different wording.
6. What a Dope: A passenger who was traveling from Hawaii to California was arrested as he retrieved his bag, which contained over a pound of marijuana. The passenger filed a lawsuit against the airline claiming that a baggage handler must have planted the drugs in his bag. Now, I’ve heard of people accusing airline workers of stealing things from their bags, but this is the first I’ve heard of them leaving a present.
7. Got milk? A female pilot filed a lawsuit against her airline when she was terminated for using a breast pump. Now, I have to tread lightly here as my wife is a pilot and a new mom. The airline defended its action, saying it did not object to the pilot using a breast pump in principle, but did object when she was simultaneously flying the airplane. In the pilot’s defense, I must say that the airlines don’t usually provide adequate leaves of absence or proper work breaks, so the working pilot is forced to pump when she can. My wife included.
8. C-E-Uh-Oh: An airline CEO filed a lawsuit against his own liquidated airline for failure to provide full compensation. The exec received his millions, his golf club membership and full health insurance, but he was not able to collect on his free lifetime first class flights. Aw, now doesn’t that just break your heart? Thousands of employees lost their pensions, and this guy is crying because he now has to pay for his air travel. One question, sir: If the airline has liquidated, where do you think your settlement will come from?
9. Fling: A female passenger caught her husband in the lavatory with another woman, then filed a lawsuit against the airline because the pilot had made an announcement making suggestive reference to the “Mile-High Club.” Let me get this straight: It’s not the husband’s fault; it’s the airline’s fault? Where was that reasoning when Bill Clinton needed it?
10. Flung: The CFO of a prominent company was upset that he didn’t get an upgrade to first class on his international flight. He then got drunk and belligerent, defecated on the serving cart and smeared feces onto the cabin walls. The airline won a suit requiring him to refund every passenger’s full-fare first class ticket. When the defendant filed a countersuit saying it was the airline’s fault for serving him too much alcohol, the case was thrown out of court. Can you imagine waking up from that hangover? “I did what?”
Some class-action lawsuits have been good for the airline industry, especially the one filed on behalf of flight attendants against the tobacco and airline industries in a case claiming harm from secondhand smoke. Result: No more smoking on the airplane.
When you hear of a ridiculous lawsuit victory, it’s OK to laugh. But don’t cheer too hard for a multimillion-dollar judgment, because at the end of the day, the costly settlement will show up in your ticket price.
Ah, lawyers, the necessary evil: You can’t live with them, and you can’t settle without them.
James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.
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