Hepler Broom, LLC

Missouri Court Stands Its Ground on Common Carrier’s Duty Owed in the Air

September 18, 2018

The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District recently handed down the case of Spencer v. American Airlines, Inc., et al., ED105809, limiting the duty owed by an airline to its passengers while in flight. The Honorable Robert M. Clayton authored the opinion affirming summary judgment to American Airlines, with the Honorable Gary M. Gaertner and the Honorable Angela T. Quigless concurring.

According to the opinion, Plaintiff, Karen Spencer, and her husband, Larry Spencer, intended to fly American Airlines from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. While waiting at the Dallas airport gate, they observed fellow passenger Jimmy Lee and his companion sitting approximately twenty feet away, loudly talking indicating they were having an argument. While the two men were not physical with one another, screaming or using profanity, their behavior alarmed the Spencers and caused another family member to change seats in the gate area.

Mr. Lee and his companion boarded the flight separately. However, as the Spencers boarded, they noticed that the men were seated directly in front of them in their assigned seats. Once the flight reached its cruising altitude, the captain turned off the fasten-seat belt sign, at which time Mr. Lee attempted to get his companion’s attention. Unsuccessful, Mr. Lee unfastened his seat belt, stood up and put one knee on his seat. He then got so angry that his companion would not acknowledge him that he motioned forward, and then lunged back as hard as he could in his seat, crunching Mrs. Spencer’s knee, which was pretty close to the seatback. Mrs. Spencer’s lawsuit ensued.

Mrs. Spencer’s claim against the airline sounded in negligence contending that American Airlines knew or should have known through the use of ordinary care that Mr. Lee was a danger to other passengers on account of his enraged mental state and prior and continuing quarreling. She further asserted that as a common carrier, the airline had a duty to use the highest degree of care in supervising passengers, specifically Mr. Lee, who presented a danger or harm to others.

The Court disagreed, noting that the touchstone for the creation of a duty is foreseeability. Here, there was no foreseeability of injury. The Spencers never put American Airlines on notice of Mr. Lee’s behavior. With respect to Mr. Lee’s behavior at the gate, there was no evidence that any flight attendants were around to witness his arguing, and the argument itself did not rise to the level of concern to preclude boarding. Furthermore, Mr. Lee’s attempt at getting his companion’s attention did not foreshadow a fellow passenger getting hurt. While the Court recognized that American Airlines has a special relationship with its passengers and therefore a heightened duty to protect them from getting hurt, that duty is not unlimited. Without reasonable foreseeability, no duty may follow.

The Court’s decision is a refreshing reminder that common carriers are not automatically “on the hook” whenever something bad happens to a passenger in their charge. The fairness of foreseeability is once again upheld.