August 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio August 2003 Current Issue
August 2003 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


Important lessons for planners from two lawsuits against airlines

Two recent court rulings involving U.S. carriers have some interesting ramifications for the meetings industry. First, consider the case of the missing jewels. The United States District Court in Chicago recently granted permission to a jewelry sales representative to file suit against a carrier that refused to let her carry on a piece of luggage containing $140,000 worth of jewelry. The plaintiff, who was en route to a trade show in Florida, claims the bag met the airline’s carry-on luggage size requirements, but the carrier insisted she check it.

She never saw the bag or its valuable contents again. And the carrier claims it is off the hook 100 percent, as its liability limitation, normally $2,500, excludes certain items including jewelry when packed in checked luggage. Interestingly, according to the carrier’s policy, individuals assume responsibility for carry-on goods.

There is no question that the limitation of liability was disclosed. The issue, says the plaintiff, is that her bag met the carry-on size requirements but she was prohibited from taking it into the cabin.

In a previous appellate court decision on the case, the judge noted a conflict in the laws governing liability, specifically in regard to distinguishing negligence from a breach of contract.

The judge referred to an earlier case in which a passenger was denied the right to carry her husband’s cremated remains on a plane, despite the airline’s policy that “valuables should be carried personally by the passenger.” The remains were checked and were lost. In that case, the court held for the plaintiff on the basis that the liability limitation was unenforceable because the airline had breached its own contract of carriage.

While the case of the missing jewelry has yet to go to trial, it presents an interesting dichotomy. The judge said if the bag met the airline’s size requirements, but the plaintiff wasn’t allowed to carry it aboard, the airline cannot limit liability, since it has breached its contract. The bottom line: Don’t let go of valuables and make sure the bag is small enough to fit under the seat. Better yet, ship the items through an air cargo carrier and insure them for their true value.

In another lawsuit, an appellate court ruled an airline was not negligent for failing to have an automated external defibrillator, or AED, aboard. This electronic device applies an electrical current to restore the rhythm of the heart in the event of heart failure during flight.

The details of the case: In 1995, a business traveler became unconscious during a flight and could be not be resuscitated by the crew; he subsequently died.

The plane was not equipped with an AED. At the time of the incident, few, if any, airlines were stocked with defibrillators. In fact, it was not until 2001 that the Federal Aviation Administration began requiring all but the smallest aircraft to be so equipped.

However, the carrier in question began outfitting its planes with AEDs in 1997, an act the plaintiff claimed was an admission of guilt after the death of the passenger. But the court disagreed with the plaintiff, concluding the airline’s decision to install defibrillators was not triggered by that unfortunate incident.

While the skies (and airports, too) might be safer today for flyers due to the presence of AEDs, the case highlights the need for the machines in other areas where large groups gather. Meeting professionals should consider having these life-saving devices and personnel trained in their use in or near meeting rooms, convention centers and any other event venues.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at

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