Law School Case Brief
Smith v. Comair, Inc. - 134 F.3d 254 (4th Cir. 1998)
The current version of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 42 U.S.C.S. § 44902(b) provides, in part: "Permissive refusal: subject to regulations of the administrator, an air carrier, intrastate air carrier, or foreign air carrier may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety." Air travel in modern society presents formidable safety and security concerns and often passengers with criminal intentions are the source of that threat. Federal law, in conjunction with its broad preemption of state-law claims related to airlines' services, appropriately grants airlines latitude in making decisions necessary to safeguard passengers from potential security threats. Section 44902(b) recognizes airlines' boarding practices as a specific area of federal concern.
While waiting for a connecting flight, plaintiff James Smith was detained for several hours at an airport after he was unable to verify his identity; airline personnel had failed to file proper procedures in verifying his identity in a prior flight. Smith later filed a lawsuit in federal district court against defendants Comair, Inc. and Delta Airlines, Inc. for breach of contract, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Comair filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted on grounds that Smith's claims were preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (Act) and, alternatively, that dismissal of the intentional tort claims was warranted because he failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted. Smith appealed.
Were Smith's breach of contract and tort claims preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act?
The appellate court affirmed the district court's judgment. The court held that Smith’s contract and tort claims were preempted to the extent they complained of Comair's boarding procedures. Comair's refusal to allow Smith to board an airplane did not rise to the level of outrageous conduct, and thus the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was properly dismissed. The contract claim directly implicated Comair's discretion and duty under federal law, and accordingly the contract claim was preempted under the Act. Smith's evidence did not show that he was compelled either to remain or to go anywhere he did not wish; therefore, he failed to support a claim for false imprisonment.
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