Written by Maribeth L. Minella
EVP & Corporate Counsel, World Travel, Inc.
The older I get, the more I appreciate a well written appellate opinion. Had you told me in law school that I would read them for fun, I would have replied, “You are C.R.A.Z.Y.” Yet, here I am, reading appellate opinions for mere pleasure – including an opinion written by the distinguished Justices Posner, Easterbrook and Rovner of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. And, oddly enough, this one applies to my in-house duties. Go figure.
Earlier this month the Court reviewed two related cases, Baumeister v. Deutche Lufthansa, A.G., No. 14-2633, (7th Cir. Feb. 2, 2016) (the “Lufthansa Case”), and Varsamis v. Iberia, Líneas Aéras de España, S.A. Operadora Sociedad Unipersonal, No. 14-2414 (7th Cir. Feb. 2, 2016) (the “Iberian Case”). Each case explored when an airline can be compelled, either by applicable law or contract, to compensate a passenger who has experienced an unreasonable delay. On a practical level, the cases illustrate the hurdles consumers must overcome in order to find relief from extraordinarily arduous travel experiences.
The cases were the same in that: (i) Plaintiffs experienced significant delays, (ii) each attempted to pursue claims as class actions that were dismissed prior to class certification, and (iii) the Appellate court affirmed the dismissals. In the Lufthansa Case, the Plaintiff filed suit against Lufthansa, the ticketing carrier. In the Iberian Case, the Plaintiffs filed suit against the operating carrier. Yet, both cases failed. Why? Yup. You totally guessed it. The hiccup was the contractual relationship between the passenger and the airline that caused the delay or sold the ticket.
You see, the contract governing the transaction truly matters. (Please note, my colleagues are likely rolling their eyes right now, because they may have heard me say this once or twice.)
In the Lufthansa Case, Plaintiff filed suit against Lufthansa, the carrier that issued the ticket. A different carrier actually operated the flight (pursuant to an agreement between the two airlines). Lufthansa’s contract of carriage essentially states that any compensation for delays must come from the carrier operating the flight. The Court therefore found that the contract ran between the passenger (Plaintiff) and the operating carrier for purposes of compensation. Thus, the suit against Lufthansa fails.
In the Iberian Case, the Plaintiffs filed suit against the carrier that operated the flight, but still had their case dismissed. In this instance the court found that the contract ran between the carrier that issued the ticket, American Airlines, and the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs had no contract with the operating carrier. Thus, the Plaintiffs’ case against Iberian failed.
"You Can't Always Sue Who You Want." -Justice Posner
So what did we learn? First, I was reminded that Justice Posner has a sharp wit. My favorite part of his opinion is when he reminds the reader that you can’t always sue who you want. Other things – like contracts and corporate form – can get in your way. His example: When you find a defect in your iPhone 6 you are stuck suing Apple, not its shareholders or CEO, Tim Cook. See id. at slip op. 5. Second, we learned that it can be truly difficult for passengers to find relief when travel plans go really awry through no fault of their own. Because the fine print really does matter.