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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
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Disabled Woman Can Sue United Over Treatment

(CN) - United Airlines must face claims that its employees yelled at a disabled woman who requested a wheelchair and help at the airport, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Michelle Gilstrap says she suffers from severe osteoarthritis and has difficulty walking and standing owing to collapsed disc in her back, one replaced knee, another knee that needs replacing.

United allegedly subjected her to harsh treatment on two separate trips in 2008 and 2009. She claimed to have requested help moving through airport terminals prior to traveling, but said the airline was either not prepared to help her or refused to do at every stop.

United agents yelled at her, told her to stand in line, and once even booked her onto a later flight in retaliation, according to the complaint.

Seeking damages and medical costs, Gilstrap sued United Airlines in California for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state-level negligence, misrepresentation, breach of duty of a common carrier and emotional distress.

U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Nguyen dismissed the action in Los Angeles, finding that the Air Carrier Access Act pre-empted the state tort claims. Nguyen also rejected Gilstrap's claims under the ADA, noting that an airport terminal is not a place of public accommodation under the law.

Though the federal appeals court in Pasadena affirmed the ruling on the ADA claims Tuesday, it revived Gilstrap's state-law claims.

"The ACAA and its implementing regulations preempt state and territorial standards of care with respect to the circumstances under which airlines must provide assistance to passengers with disabilities in moving through the airport," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the three-judge panel. "The ACAA does not, however, preempt any state remedies that may be available when airlines violate those standards."

Perhaps United Airlines could be held liable for the way in which they failed to perform, if not for what they failed to do.

"The ACAA regulations say nothing about how airline agents should interact with passengers," Berzon wrote. "Whether Gilstrap's complaint makes out a prima facie case of either negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress under California

law is, of course, a separate matter." (Emphasis in original.)

"Because the district court held Gilstrap's claims entirely preempted, it did not determine whether the California causes of action would survive under California tort law, incorporating the ACAA standards as to negligence and duty of common carriers but not as to negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress," she added. "We leave those issues to be determined in the first instance on remand."

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