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Doctor Dragged Off United Flight Stands to Gain in a Lawsuit, Experts Say

How much Dr. David Dao could win in any potential lawsuit is unclear, but legal experts say the airline will likely move to settle.
Image: A video screengrab shows passenger David Dao being dragged off a United Airlines flight at Chicago O'Hare International Airport
A video screengrab shows passenger David Dao being dragged off a United Airlines flight at Chicago O'Hare International Airport in this video filmed by @JayseDavid on April 9, 2017.@JayseDavid / Reuters

Name your own price.

That's essentially what the passenger dragged from a United Airlines flight this week in a scuffle with security that went viral could do if the carrier decides to settle with him out of court, legal experts say.

And yes, the airline would want to settle quickly and quietly with Dr. David Dao instead of go to trial, the experts add. That's so that this case — after throwing United into a storm of bad publicity — goes away.

"In an instance like this, it would be beyond insanity to do anything more than bring [Dao] into a conference room and basically say there's a check on the desk, it's signed, just fill in the amount," said New York trial attorney Randy Zelin.

How much Dao stands to gain from Sunday's ordeal in Chicago is unclear. His attorney, Thomas Demetrio, said he's still determining what a potential lawsuit might look like, but is girding for a fight with United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

"Mr. Munoz, believe me, he will have a team of lawyers that will get involved and there will be litigation," Demetrio said at a news conference Thursday. "It's not that easy."

It's not. Such lawsuits can take months, and in many cases years, to wind through the system, as sides go head-to-head over who was at fault and how much in damages is actually owed. High-profile cases can put pressure on the negotiations, said Kenneth Quinn, a partner who represents airlines at the D.C. law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Dao's legal team can try to argue that United breached its own contract by booting him, but the airline could also claim that Dao's obstinate refusal is what set off the chaotic chain of events.

Related: How Do Airlines Select Who to Remove From Overbooked Flights?

Quinn said that United would have a hard time swaying a jury because of the videos that show the 69-year-old Dao being forcibly removed, clearly upsetting his fellow passengers. His lawyers say he fell and lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose and concussion.

But ultimately, airlines don't like going to court, and more than 95 percent of cases involving them are settled, Quinn estimated.

"Money isn't the issue for them — it's about the precedent and signal it sends if an airline goes to trial and loses," he added. "They don't want another case of a person not following crew instructions in the hopes they hit some financial windfall."

Often, these lawsuits are settled confidentially, which means the amounts that plaintiffs are paid aren't publicly disclosed. That was the case when 11 passengers sued Southwest Airlines, Boeing and the city of Chicago in 2006 for fear, distress and physical harm following a botched plane landing that resulted in one death when the aircraft barreled out of the airport and into an intersection.

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Two years passed from when the accident occurred to when a settlement was finally announced.

In another case, 72 passengers agreed to settle confidentially when an Asiana Airlines flight slammed into a runway at San Francisco International Airport in 2013, killing three. The family of a teenage girl who was killed by emergency vehicles after the crash also dropped a lawsuit in exchange for a settlement.

It took 20 months after the accident before attorneys announced a settlement.

Dao appears to have the upper hand in his case. Munoz apologized repeatedly for the passenger's treatment, saying on national television this week that he "can't be" at fault and what happened to him was the result of a "system failure." The airline is conducting an internal investigation and has pledged to no longer allow officers on board to physically pull booked and seated customers off its planes.

Related: Here's Why It's Legal for Airlines to Kick You Off Your Flight

Demetrio on Thursday said he wants Dao to ultimately be a "poster child" for airline reform.

But Zelin warns that if United feels like Dao is expecting too much, they'll be quick to draw a line: "You don't want to be viewed as a pinata where people can line up and wait for you to break out your checkbook."

Meanwhile, airlines can anticipate more of these viral incidents brewing into lawsuits, Quinn added, as passengers become trained to hit record on their cellphones.

"The instantaneous videotaping occurring with over 3 million people flying a day changes the nature of an airline's response and crisis management," Quinn said. "It's no longer a letter of complaint being filed — it's videos on the internet, and social media outrage and CEOs responding instantaneously. So much more comes into play."