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Something Special in the Air?

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Deborah and Matt Lavine had apparently planned on trading in a cold, white Christmas for the warm beaches and picturesque waters of Key West, Florida.  They booked their flights through American Airlines, which required a brief stop in Miami before taking the final, short flight to Key West.  On December 21, 2008, the Lavines arrived at Regan Airport only to learn that their flight had been delayed, which caused concern that they would be unable to make their connecting flight out of Miami.  Rather than changing their flight arrangements, they relied on American Airlines’ representation that they would be able to make their connector and that American would get them to Key West.  When they touched down, the Lavines were told that they had only fifteen minutes to get to their flight, which if you have never been to Miami-Dade Airport, is no small task.  The Lavines ran through the airport, suffering from the inhalation of construction debris and narrowly made it to the terminal only five minutes before the scheduled departing time and….they were not permitted to board.  American could not provide another flight to Key West that evening, so it paid for the Lavines to spend the night in a Miami hotel and provided a free dinner and breakfast stipend.  The next morning, the Lavines boarded a new flight to Key West, preparing to enjoy their vacation and forget all about the previous evening’s experience file a lawsuit against American Airlines.

The Lavines decided to file a 5-count civil complaint against American in the Circuit Court for Howard County, alleging various claims of negligent and intentional misrepresentation and seeking a total of $20,000.00 in compensatory damages and $20,000.00 in punitive damages.  The Circuit Court determined that the Lavines had no recourse against American as a matter of law and granted summary judgment in favor of the airline on November 29, 2009.  On December 1, 2011, the Lavines’ journey apparently came to an end, as the Court of Special Appeals handed down a reported opinion affirming the lower court’s ruling.

In fairness to the Lavines, we are limited solely to the facts as stated in the Court of Special Appeals’ decision, and there may be more to the story underlying why they chose the litigious route.  However, the appellate court’s ruling is fairly straightforward that its decision is based upon the contract for carriage between the Lavines and American, which included “Conditions of Carriage.”  Pursuant to federal regulations, such conditions may be incorporated into the carriage ticket by reference, so long as their existence is conspicuously noted.  Having been conspicuously noted by American, the Conditions contained a clause limiting its liability, specifically stating that it is not liable for failure to make connection flights or operate a flight on schedule.  The Conditions also noted that the airline did not guarantee the scheduled departure and arrival times, which according to the Court, negated any misrepresentation claims because the Lavines would not have been justified in relying on any statements that were contrary to the Conditions.  The Court noted that Mr. Lavine is an experiencedMarylandattorney who would have known that his reliance would not be reasonable.

On the one hand, we can all empathize with the Lavines’ plight.  Anyone who even occasionally travels by air has a horror story, such as delayed or cancelled flights, overbooking, a long wait on the tarmac, or the increasingly prevalent excessive pat-down at security.  As a college student, I once was in a group that made the local news because we were left sitting at the Philadelphia Airport because our flights to spring break never showed up.  Still, when one signs up for air travel, these are known annoyances that we have become resigned to accept, probably receiving overall cheaper airfare as a result.  Despite the Lavines’ attempt to throw down the gauntlet against the American Airline, the Court of Special Appeals had reiterated the point that if you decided to fly, you fly by the airline’s rules.  As Delta Airlines once proclaimed “We get you there.”  At the end of the day, we have no reason to expect more than that.

A full copy of the Court’s opinion can be found at the Maryland Judiciary website, here.

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