Can an airline be sued when passengers misbehave?

News, Bizarre, Crime, NakedLaw

Maybe it’s the screaming baby two rows back. Maybe it’s the guy in front of you who just reclined his seat and snapped your laptop in half. Maybe it’s the boisterous trio of partying spring breakers cackling from three rows over. Whatever the cause, in-flight passenger conflicts are more common than many people think—and can actually create an extremely dangerous situation for other travelers and crew members.

When it comes to passenger-related fisticuffs onboard an aircraft, who is to blame for any resulting injuries? The following discusses this interesting liability inquiry—and stands as a reminder to us all that the skies may not always be so friendly, so take a deep breath and be prepared to go to your happy place.

Mile-high brawl

In March of this year, a Los Angeles-bound Spirit Airlines flight was the scene of a “vicious” fight between as many as five women—reportedly over the volume of music played by a group of travelers. According to the lawsuit—which was filed about a month later—the plane had already landed when a group of women began dancing to music from a “boom box” they had apparently left blaring during the entire five-hour flight. After several surrounding passengers asked the women to lower the volume, words were exchanged—and violent hair-pulling was not too far behind.

In May 2016, three of the alleged victims filed a lawsuit against Spirit Airlines, the entity deemed responsible for passenger safety from gate to gate. In their claim, the women assert that the airline failed to adhere to its duty to keep passengers safe from harm, including harm from other passengers on board. More specifically, the plaintiffs claimed the airline “fueled” the other passengers with alcohol, and even allowed crew members to dance to the music without giving thought to the safety of other passengers. In addition, the plaintiffs were allegedly berated with racial epithets and foul language, further advancing the conflict without any intervention by crew members or flight attendants.

Duty of care: air travel

Airlines and pilots owe a duty of care to their passengers, and the precise duty of care—or breach thereof—is delineated in the Federal Aviation Act. The Act was originally ratified in 1958 in order to cloak Congress with the power to improve aviation safety and implement minimum standards. From there, the courts across the United States have interpreted the Act’s heightened standards of care, holding that “pilots are charged with that which they should have known in the exercise of the highest degree of care.”

Given their status as a “common carrier by air,” airlines are held to an exceedingly high standard of care to prevent passengers from being hurt. In one pivotal aviation law case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an airline is “responsible for any, even the slightest, negligence and [is] required to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under all the circumstances.”

In that case, by the way, a passenger defeated United’s summary judgment motion in a lawsuit involving severe injuries caused by luggage falling from the overhead bins. The court reasoned that, even though the airline warned the plaintiff that items may have shifted during the flight, it did not actually do anything to fortify the overhead bin. The court was also thoughtful enough to remind us about the dramatic changes in airline travel that have occurred over the years, stating that “[a]s harried travelers try to avoid the agonizing ritual of checked baggage, they hand-carry more and larger items—computers, musical instruments, an occasional deceased relative.”


Given the heightened duty of care required of the air travel industry, it’s generally very difficult for airlines to avoid liability in the event a passenger is injured by on-board equipment—or even other passengers. In the Spirit Airlines case, the preliminary allegations indicate that the flight crew may have over-served alcohol to the assailants—possibly contributing to their poor judgment upon landing. Of course, the outcome of the lawsuit remains to be seen, but the victims are requesting both compensatory and punitive damages from the airline—which is undoubtedly searching for the nearest exit.

Regardless of how the case works out, keeping a clear head and a calm demeanor while flying—despite the obvious stressors—helps everyone manage the sometimes painful ordeal of modern air travel.