Airline Deregulation Act Preempts Claim that Airline Negligently Failed to Prevent Cocaine Being Planted in Baggage

In Wilson v. Caribbean Airlines Ltd., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently held that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (the “ADA”) preempts and bars a passenger’s claim that Caribbean Airlines Limited (“CAL”) negligently allowed someone to plant two kilograms of cocaine in his checked baggage.1 Discovery of the cocaine led to the passenger’s arrest and detention.

The passenger-plaintiff 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 further inspection. U.S. Customs found two kilograms of cocaine in his suitcase.

Criminal drug charges were brought against the passenger, but eventually were dropped. The passenger then sued CAL, claiming that the drugs were planted in his luggage because of CAL’s alleged negligent supervision of an employee or some third party who allegedly planted the cocaine.  CAL moved for summary judgment on the basis that the ADA preempted and barred the passenger’s action because the alleged wrongful conduct, baggage handling, constitutes 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, among other things, to ensure that states would not undo federal regulation of airline prices, routes, and services with state regulations.  Accordingly, the ADA preempts and bars any state law or regulation that touches upon an air carrier’s flight prices, routes, and the services it provides to passengers.2

In determining whether the claimed injury falls within the ADA’s preemptive effect, courts employ a three-part test first articulated by then Judge Sotomayor in Rombom v. United Air Lines, Inc.3  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 air carriers provide to their passengers, the Wilson Court concluded that the first of the three-part test was satisfied.  Plaintiff tried to frame the relevant question as not whether baggage handling was the service at issue, but more narrowly as to whether securing baggage to prevent drug trafficking was a regular airline service.  But even that narrower framework led the court to the same conclusion—securing baggage is part of the baggage handling services that carriers provide to their passengers generally, including preventing anyone from inserting objects in passenger baggage.

The second of the three-part test examines whether the claim at issue affects the airline service directly, or only tenuously or remotely.  Plaintiff argued that planting drugs does not directly relate to passenger safety or baggage handling because planting drugs is the opposite of the service a passenger would expect a carrier to provide and, indeed, is no “service” at all.  The court rejected that argument reasoning that the fact that an unfortunate event occurred during provision of the service does not change that the event related to the service.

Finally, the court examined the third prong of the Rombom test, which evaluates whether the alleged tortious conduct was necessary to the provision of the service at issue.  The third prong exempts from preemption only conduct by an air carrier that is outrageous or unreasonable. While the court noted that intentionally planting drugs in the plaintiff’s baggage would have been objectively outrageous and unreasonable, plaintiff did not claim that CAL purposefully planted the drugs but, rather, that it was negligent in failing to prevent the drugs from being planted.  The court concluded that plaintiff had come forward with no evidence that CAL or any of its employees were involved in the alleged tort, and therefore held that the third prong had been satisfied. Having satisfied all three prongs, CAL proved that the plaintiff’s claim was preempted by the ADA.

The court concluded that its holding was difficult to reach because summary judgment left plaintiff with no remedy for damages.  Indeed, the court suggested that this case could function as a good test case for an appellate court to more specifically define the ADA’s preemptive scope. Despite the court’s invitation, the plaintiff did not appeal the decision.  This action thus demonstrates the ADA’s broad preemptive scope, and the hurdles plaintiffs must overcome to maintain a state law-based claim arising out of an air carrier’s services.

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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).

3  867 F. Supp. 214 (S.D.N.Y. 1994).