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Airline Escapes Peanut Allergy Claims

SACRAMENTO (CN) - United Airlines made an emergency landing when a passenger's allergy to peanuts - served to someone else - threatened her life, but her claims are preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, a federal judge ruled.

Alison Gleason sued United Airlines in 2013, seeking $500,000 in damages for negligence in exposing her to peanuts during a 2011 flight from Orlando to Chicago.

Peanuts are among the eight foods responsible for most of the allergic reactions suffered by Americans. Peanut allergies affect about 2 percent of the population and are one of the most common causes of death from food allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

In the most severe cases, inhaling the smallest bit of peanut dust can send a person into anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal unless a dose of adrenaline is given.

Gleason suffers from a severe form of the allergy. When booking her ticket with United, an agent assured her that the airline did not serve peanut products on its flights and that Gleason's needs would be accommodated, according to her lawsuit.

On the day of her trip, Gleason said, she informed multiple United employees about her severe peanut allergy and was told that a flight attendant would make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating peanuts and peanut products during the flight.

But Gleason said when she notified crew members on the plane about her allergy, they said they would make no such announcement.

An hour into the flight, Gleason suffered "heaviness in her chest, tongue swelling, difficulty breathing and difficulty swallowing," according to her complaint.

Despite taking medications, Gleason's condition deteriorated, even as flight attendants and medical personnel tended to her. The pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in St. Louis, where Gleason was taken to the hospital and placed in an intensive care unit for two days, according to her complaint.

Gleason sought damages for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, promissory estoppel, fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract and breach of faith.

U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England threw out the claims on May 20, finding they were all preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, a 1978 federal law that removed government control over fares, routes and market entry in commercial aviation.

"(E)ach of plaintiff's claims is based on the service that defendant provided (or, more accurately, did not provide) during the flight on May 28, 2011; specifically, defendant's refusal to make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from consuming peanuts and peanut-based products during the flight. Because plaintiff's claims relate to the service of an air carrier, they are pre-empted by ADA," Morrison wrote. (Parentheses in ruling.)

United Airlines amended its allergy policy in 2014 to make some accommodation for peanut-allergic passengers.

"Although we do not serve peanuts on our flights, it's not possible to prevent customers from bringing food items on board that contain peanuts. If you have concerns about peanut allergies, please notify a flight attendant on board the aircraft. In some cases, we may be able to pass along your request to our other customers seated nearby to refrain from operating or eating any peanut products that they may have brought on board," the policy states on the United website, checked Wednesday morning.

The airline notes that it cannot guarantee nut-free flights.

Attorneys for the parties could not immediately be reached for comment.

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