DALLAS (CN) - Hunters are "grasping at straws" in their lawsuit challenging Delta Airlines' ban on transporting big-game trophies, the airline claims in a motion to dismiss.
Dallas resident Corey Knowlton and several hunting and conservation groups sued Delta in Federal Court in October, challenging the ban Delta announced after Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe six months ago.
Knowlton made headlines January 2014 when co-plaintiff Dallas Safari Club accepted his $350,000 bid to kill an endangered black rhino and Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism issued him a permit. Despite criticism from animal rights groups and several death threats, Knowlton killed the rhino four months later.
Knowlton accused Delta of robbing "wildlife habitat of its economic value, encouraging habitat conversion to agriculture, grazing, and industry, and undercutting range states' tried-and-true conservation strategy."
He claims the ban "jeopardizes the benefits of tourist hunting and its centrality to conservation" in Africa.
The airline blasted his claims Monday, saying it is a common carrier that is allowed under law to "carve out specific cargo exclusions that apply equally to all shippers." Common carriers are required to carry any kind of cargo that it tells the public it is willing to carry.
"The common-law rule about cargo exclusions is simple: if you will carry it for anyone, you must carry it for everyone - but you can always decide that you will carry it for no one," Delta said in its 17-page reply in support of its motion to dismiss.
"Delta carries Big Five trophy kills for no one. That policy is faithful to Delta's duties as a common carrier."
Big Five trophies are the African lion, African elephant, African leopard, Cape buffalo and the white or black rhinoceros.
Delta rejected Knowlton's claim that it must carry Big Five trophy kills because it carries other trophies, calling that argument an "absurdity."
"If it were true, an airline that accepted hunting shotguns as checked baggage would also have to accept AK-47s and grenade launchers," Delta said in its reply. "Not surprisingly, the case law rejects this position."
The hunters' tortious interference claim under Texas law is preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act, Delta says.
"Plaintiffs try to recast their claim as a challenge to Delta's public announcement of the trophy ban, but this recasting is equal parts implausible (the ban is the true object of Plaintiffs' ire) and ineffectual (the claim is preempted regardless of whether it attacks the trophy ban or Delta's statement announcing the ban)," the reply states.
Delta called the plaintiffs' constitutional challenge to the act's preemption provision "frivolous."
"On these facts, the case for preemption is open-and-shut, so plaintiffs try to change the facts," the reply states. "In their brief, plaintiffs contend that their claim challenges not Delta's trophy embargo itself, but rather Delta's public statement 'announcing its refusal to transport Big Five trophies.' This quasi-defamation claim is completely implausible: would plaintiffs really not have filed suit if Delta had enacted a trophy ban but used different words to announce it? In any event, this new, unpleaded claim fares no better. It, too, is preempted."
Finally, Delta says its ban has not injured Knowlton. He was able to ship his trophies home with another carrier, the airline said in its motion to dismiss in December.
Delta is represented by Russell Falconer, with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Dallas.
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