September 19, 2017

Texas Federal Court dismisses defamation and malicious prosecution claims brought by passenger

On a United Airlines flight from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Bogota, Colombia, passengers Carmen Lenchin and her then-husband became involved in an altercation, causing her then-husband to signal to a flight attendant for assistance.  After the flight attendant unsuccessfully tried to resolve the situation by re-seating Lenchin, the flight attendant “zip tied” Lenchin (with assistance from two passengers) and forcibly removed her from the first class cabin.  A Houston police officer who was on board sat with Lenchin while the aircraft returned to Houston, where Lenchin was arrested and charged with the federal offense of interfering with a flight attendant while in the performance of his duties by intimidation. Lenchin was tried and acquitted, and then sued United for malicious prosecution and defamation, both state law tort claims.

United filed a motion for summary judgment, first arguing that the Montreal Convention preempted plaintiff’s state law claims, and that the claims were time-barred by the treaty’s two-year limitations period.  United also contended that the Montreal Convention prohibited the recovery of emotional distress damages in the absence of bodily injury.  The Court side-stepped the Montreal Convention arguments but nevertheless granted summary judgment to United, agreeing that Lenchin’s defamation claim failed because she could not identify a defamatory statement published by United.  The Court also dismissed the malicious prosecution claim because there was no evidence that the airline had reported false information to the authorities that led to Lenchin’s indictment.

It is interesting to note that no argument was made, and the Court did not determine, that the airline was immune from liability under the Tokyo Convention of 1963.  The Tokyo Convention is the cornerstone of the international law regarding action taken in response to the myriad threats that may arise during a flight.  The Convention grants the "aircraft commander," who is the ultimate authority on the aircraft while in flight, broad authority to take necessary action in response to acts on board the aircraft.  If the aircraft commander has reasonable grounds to believe that a passenger may or does jeopardize safety or good order and discipline on board an aircraft, the Convention immunizes the aircraft commander (and crew members and, in specific circumstances, even passengers) from liability for actions taken, including restraining and disembarking the passenger, in accordance with the Convention.  See Tokyo Convention, Articles 6, 8, 9 and 10.

Carmen Lenchin v. United Airlines, Inc., 2017 WL 3432729 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 9, 2017).