U.S. District Court Holds that the Airline Deregulation Act Preempts Passenger Claim that Airline Negligently Failed to Prevent Cocaine Being Planted in his Suitcase

In an unusual action, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently held that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (“ADA”) preempted and barred an action by a passenger on a Caribbean Airlines (“CAL”) flight, wherein the passenger claimed that CAL had negligently allowed someone to plant two kilograms of cocaine in his luggage.1  The passenger traveled from Guyana to New York on a CAL flight in 2018.  After passing through security, he turned over his suitcase to Guyanese officials and boarded the subject flight without incident.  When he arrived in New York, he retrieved his suitcase and went through U.S. Customs, where he was selected for inspection.  Customs found two kilograms of cocaine in his suitcase. 

Charges against the passenger eventually were dropped, but he sued CAL claiming that the drugs were planted in his luggage because of CAL’s alleged negligence supervision of an employee or someone else who planted the cocaine.  CAL moved for summary judgment claiming that the ADA preempted and barred his action because the wrongful conduct alleged was a “service” within the meaning of the ADA, and the ADA preempts all state law causes of action relating to air carrier services.

The ADA was intended to, among other things, ensure that states would not undo federal regulation of airline price, routes, and services with regulations of their own.  Accordingly, the ADA preempts and bars any such state law or regulation, and federal courts throughout the country have held that the ADA preempts any state law or regulation that has an effect on the economics of the airline industry.2

In determining whether the claimed injury falls within the ADA’s preemptive effect, courts employ a three-party test first set forth by then Judge Sotomayor in Rombom v. United Air Lines, Inc., 867 F. Supp. 214 (S.D.N.Y. 1994).  The first part of the test examines whether the activity at issue is an airline “service” within the meaning of the ADA.  As baggage handling unquestionably falls within the scope of services airlines provide to passengers, the court here had no trouble in concluding that the first of the three-part test was satisfied.  Plaintiff tried to frame the issue as not whether baggage handling was the relevant service, but more narrowly whether securing baggage so as to prevent drug trafficking was a regular airline service.  But even that narrower framework led to the same conclusion—securing baggage is part and parcel of the baggage handling services that airlines provide generally, including preventing anyone from inserting objects in passenger baggage.

The second of the three-part test examines whether the service at issue affects the airline directly, or only tenuously or remotely.  In other words, if the tort at issue had only an incidental effect on the service at issue, there is no preemption.  Here again, plaintiff attempted to narrowly frame the service at issue by claiming that the planting of drugs does not directly relate to passenger safety or baggage handling because planting drugs is the opposite of the service a passenger would expect from an airline and, indeed, is no “service” at all.  The court rejected that argument for the same reason it rejected plaintiff’s argument as to the first prong, namely that the fact that an unfortunate event occurred does not change the fact that the event related to baggage handling procedures, which clearly are a “service” within the meaning of the ADA.

Finally, the court examined the third prong which determines whether the alleged tortious conduct was necessary to the provision of the service.  But the third prong has been applied only to exempt from preemption actions by an air carrier that are outrageous or unreasonable.  While the court noted that intentionally planting drugs in the plaintiff’s luggage would have been objectively outrageous and unreasonable, the plaintiff claimed not that CAL planted the drugs, but that CAL was negligent in failing to prevent the drugs from being planted by a CAL employee or another individual.  Yet plaintiff had no evidence that CAL or any of its employees were involved in the alleged tort, and therefore the third prong had been satisfied.  Having satisfied all three prongs, CAL proved that the plaintiff’s action was preempted by the ADA.

The court concluded by noting its holding was difficult to reach because to the extent that cocaine really was planted in the plaintiff’s suitcase leading to his arrest and detention, summary judgment left him with no remedy for a serious injury for which he bore no fault.  Indeed, the court suggested that this case could function as a good test case for an appellate court to more specifically defined the ADA’s preemptive effect.  But as the law stands now, the ADA preempts plaintiff’s claim, requiring the court to grant summary judgment and dismissal in CAL’s favor.

1 Wilson v. Caribbean Airlines Ltd., No. 1:20-04524-FB-CLP, Dkt. No. 32 (E.D.N.Y. July 13, 2022).

2 See id. citing American Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens, 513 U.S. 219 (1995) (striking a class action relating to a frequent flyer program brought under an Illinois consumer-protection law); Air Transport Ass’n of Am. v. Cuomo, 520 F.3d 218 (2d. Cir. 2008) (holding that New York’s Passenger Bill of Rights was preempted by the ADA)

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