Delta Forced to Defend Itself in State Court

     ATLANTA (CN) – A blind passenger’s claims that Delta Air Lines asked her to board an airplane without assistance, which led to serious injuries, belong in state court, a federal judge ruled.
     Dorothea Baugh sued Delta last year in Fulton County State Court, alleging that the airline denied her assistance in boarding a plane despite her disability. Baugh says she was “flagged as blind and needing assistance” when she checked into her flight at the Boston Logan International Airport in September 2012. Despite the warning, Delta, which operated her flight, told her to board the plane by herself, she claimed in the complaint. Baugh fell and suffered serious injuries while trying to walk down the sloping ramp to board the plane, as instructed by Delta employees, according to the lawsuit.
     Claiming that Baugh’s state-law negligence claim was preempted by the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, a federal law that prohibits airline discrimination against disabled passengers, Delta removed the lawsuit to federal court.
     The airline then asked the court to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the disability discrimination statute does not provide a private right of action.
     Baugh countered that her complaint raised only state-law negligence claims against Delta and that the airline sought to “manufacture federal jurisdiction” over the lawsuit.
     U.S. District Judge William Duffey ruled last week that while the ACAA statute does not provide a private right of action, nor does it preclude state-law negligence claims in their entirety. The preemption only applies to state-law standards of care for disabled passengers, the opinion states.
     Baugh’s allegations that Delta failed to assist her in boarding the plane are tied to a duty of care that is regulated by federal law. However, Massachusetts law governs other negligence elements in Baugh’s complaint, as well as the choice and availability of remedies, the 35-page opinion states.
     Duffey said the court lacked jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims, noting that “federal jurisdiction does not exist merely because state law provides that the violation of a federal statute establishes negligence.”
     Moreover, Delta failed to assert that Baugh’s state-law negligence claims raise a substantial question of federal law, the opinion adds.
     The state court should consider Baugh’s request to amend her complaint and Delta’s pending motion to dismiss, according to the ruling.
     The court denied Baugh’s request for attorney fees, finding that Delta did not lack a reasonable basis for seeking to remove the lawsuit.
     Clark H. McGehee, an Atlanta-based attorney who represents Baugh, said the court’s opinion is a landmark decision in this case of first impression in Georgia.
     “Airlines regularly attempt to remove such cases to federal court and routinely argue that the ACAA statute preempts personal injury lawsuits where people get hurt in a terminal or aircraft to try to get them dismissed,” McGehee told Courthouse News. “Judge Duffey’s opinion is important because he concluded that the plaintiff can pursue remedies in state court.”
     An attorney for Delta did not respond to a request for comment.

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