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Mad Enough to Sue?

Cindy Loose

Has the cavalier attitude of an airline that's messed up days of your life made you angry enough to want to sue? Jane Waun of Michigan has maybe paved the way: In a very unusual case, she's just won $1,350 in a small claims court against Spirit Airlines.

Last summer Waun, her husband and her elderly parents were due to fly Spirit from Detroit to Fort Myers, Fla. Their flight was canceled. Agents at the airport wouldn't help, but instead gave them a phone number that put Waun on hold for hours, and in the end never answered her pleas for a new flight.

Waun took her family to a hotel for the night and bought four new tickets on Northwest for the next day. She later asked Spirit to reimburse her for the extra expenses. The airline credited her the price of the unused tickets, but wouldn't pony up for other expenses. Waun told the Detroit Free Press she would have been satisfied with an apology. When she couldn't get that, she turned to small claims court.

Spirit failed to show up at the first hearing, so she won by default. Spirit filed for a reheaing, but the judge wasn't impressed with the argument that Spirit didn't know about the first hearing, given that a Spirit rep had signed a hearing notice form.

The judge also didn't buy the usual airline language from Spirit's Contract of Carriage that states it has no obligation to operate a flight. Waun's judgment reimbursed her for hotel, meals, a missed night at her destination and the extra expense of the next-day tickets.

Good luck if you try that route -- airlines generally aren't so dim that they fail to show up in court. In fact, to avoid a precedent they'll often pull out big guns and argue that airline law is a federal case. Once a case moves to federal court, to win you'd have to be an aviation attorney or a deep-pocketed eccentric willing to spend big bucks to make a point.

If you have an airline outrage story you think worthy of a judgment, tell Judge Cindy. I can't award you anything, but will rule on whether you'd have a case in my courtroom, should I ever have one.

By Cindy Loose |  July 18, 2007; 10:58 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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US Scareways "lost" my wife's their own luggage office. Apparently, it came in the same night that she did, but it took us four days of calling to find that out, and then they refused to have it delivered because the customer disservice representative at the luggage claim did not file a report and so she did not have a claim number. (The luggage office rang through to voicemail all weekend anyway...even the phone CSR complained that they couldn't get any information from THEIR Dulles luggage office.) She had to drive down to and around the Beltway, and pay to park at Dulles to pick it up. She wrote a complaint letter, and they just sent her $100 if 1) that even barely covers her time and expenses, and 2) we'd ever fly them again.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | July 18, 2007 11:37 AM

I suggest Cosmic Avenger hire the lawyer suing the dry cleaner for $54 million over a lost pair of pants. You might not win, but USAIR will spend big$ fighting him!

Posted by: JohninDC | July 18, 2007 11:57 AM

The "Contract of Carriage" leaves the airlines holding all the cards, because at the end of they day, if they don't hold up their end of the contact, what can you do? Nothing. And they know it.

All a ticket obligates the airline to do for you is get you there whenever & however it is convenient for the airline to do so. It could be on a bus. If you don't like it, you may aske for your money back, and may be returned to you whenever it is convenient for them to do so. The sooner we all accept that, the happier we "sheeple" will be. Baaaaaa!

It's just like you told us last March, Cindy: "Oh, and by the way, the stuff promised in a contract of carriage? Don't really count on it..."

Posted by: Anonymous | July 18, 2007 12:32 PM

...which is why I've stopped flying anywhere if I can help it. I drove from North Carolina to Chicago last Thanksgiving rather than fly. I only fly for a trip that is more than a day's drive, during the holidays so that traffic is heavy enough that they're not going to cancel a flight just because it's not entirely full.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 18, 2007 1:55 PM

...which is why I've stopped flying anywhere if I can help it. I drove from North Carolina to Chicago last Thanksgiving rather than fly. I only fly for a trip that is more than a day's drive, during the holidays so that traffic is heavy enough that they're not going to cancel a flight just because it's not entirely full.

Posted by: csdiego | July 18, 2007 1:55 PM

I am so thrilled that someone remembered my contract of carriage story from oh so long ago. As to don't count on it, as I recall I noted that many contracts say at the end the airline may change the contract of carriage at any time, and that the new rules will apply to tickets bought under the old contract. I'm no lawyer but I can't believe that would hold up in court should someone wish to waste their life fighting it. Any contract lawyers out there? Can you think of any situation in which one party to a contract can change the terms retroactively? If that thinking has made it into real estate law, I have a house I'd like to sell you, only I might significantly raise the price after you've agreed to buy it. Or maybe I'll just decide not to include my yard in the deal.

As to the US Airways customer whose luggage was lost in plain sight: Personally I'd take the voucher and consider using it if I found a desirable ticket. It's not like you can take another airline and be assured they won't lose your luggage and not bother to look for it too hard. Then again, I've never had an airline refuse to deliver luggage they'd found.

Posted by: cindy loose | July 18, 2007 2:04 PM

What I've never understood is why airlines go to so much trouble to skin these delay reimbursements to the bone. Couldn't they lobby the FAA to require that all cancellations and delays (for any reason) that require a hotel room be paid by the airline? It would add $10 to each ticket but make flying a significantly less stressful experience when things go wrong. Apparently they prefer to make the passenger's life difficult, which is why we all cheer when the passenger gets the better of the carrier. Even one stupid enough not to show up in court.

Posted by: Walt N | July 18, 2007 4:15 PM

NEVER FLY WITH UNITED NOR WITH US AIRWAYS...The people at united failed to even put my bag on the same flight as me and I went from LAX to PHL to LGA in New York and somehow my luggage was send to DENVER, COLORADO. It is 10 hours later and still no luggage, I was supposed to work today but because I did not have the necessities I missed out on $800. Can I sue United. I want to sue them for their ignorance, horrible customer service, inability to help me, stress, suffering, loss of wages, and sheer annoyance.

Posted by: Ajia | September 5, 2007 8:47 PM

Re Never fly United nor US Airways.

I understand being mad enough to sue when luggage essential to your destination doesn't show up. But actually recovering--I don't think so. Their contracts of carriage outline very specifically what they will and won't do in case of delayed and lost baggage, and I can't imagine winning a case challenging that aspect of what is basically a contract. I think someone with extra time and money could have a shot at challenging the part of the contract which says the rules can change after you've bought your ticket, but that issue doesn't apply in your case.

You also mention one should never fly US Airways, but you don't mention a problem with them. I guess that was an earlier issue? The problem with vowing not to fly a particular airline is that the vow assumes that other airlines aren't going to misplace you or your luggage, and that's not a fair assumption to make. Best you can do to avoid the problem of delayed luggage ruining your business meeting--wear whatever you plan to wear at the meeting and carry on essential papers. The airline still might misplace you, but if you arrive, at least you'll have the stuff you need.

Posted by: cindy loose | September 6, 2007 10:16 AM

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