Summer 2015 –
A California woman loses her court battle against United Airlines that stemmed from a life-threatening allergic reaction she had on board a flight. In May, a U.S. District Court judge in Sacramento threw out the claims that Alisa Gleason had filed stating that her charges of negligence, emotional distress and breach of contract were preempted by the Airline Dergulation Act, a 1978 federal law that removed government control over the airlines. In his ruling, Judge Morrison England wrote that Gleason’s claims relate to the services of an air carrier and are therefore preempted by the Airline Dereguation Act.
Gleason, who has a life-threatening peanut allergy, boarded a flight from Florida to Chicago on United Airlines on May 28, 2011. Before the flight, she asked United employees to make an announcement for passengers to refrain from eating peanuts on the flight; United agreed. However, once on the plane, United crewmembers on the flight refused to make that announcement as promised. In fact, one flight attendant allegedly said to her, “What do you want me to do about it?” when she told him she had a peanut allergy.
One hour into the flight, Ms. Gleason started experiencing an allergic reaction. She had noticed that someone four rows behind her was eating peanuts. She took Benadryl and an inhaler to no avail and her reaction worsened. She went to the bathroom, and a flight attendant ordered her out. She took out her inhaler, and allegedly was told by the flight attendant to put away the “nail polish” because the odor might disturb other passengers. Flight attendants and a passenger who was a nurse told the pilot that Ms. Gleason may not survive all the way to Chicago, which was 40-45 minutes away, as she was lapsing in and out of consciousness and experiencing stridor. The pilot made an emergency landing in Missouri. Ms. Gleason was treated at a hospital in Missouri for two days in intensive care.
Although the judge dismissed the lawsuit, United nevertheless received a lot of negative publicity, especially in the food allergy community. A few lessons can be learned to prevent such an incident like this in the future. First, if a passenger is showing signs of an allergic reaction, make sure the passenger is treated with epinephrine as soon as possible. Every on-board medical kit has epinephrine. Early treatment can mean the difference between life and death and can often prevent the situation from becoming worse or dire.
Second, treat the allergic passenger with respect. Food allergy is a recognized disability by the Department of Transportation, so treat them with the same care as any other disabled passenger. Showing kindness and compassion can go a long way. Lawsuits are often brought because a person feels mistreated, and studies show that a little bit of kindness can often discourage a lawsuit.
Lastly, be consistent. If your airline has an allergy policy, make sure it is enforced. Make sure the customer service representatives know the policy in addition to every other crew member so that their promises are followed through by the flight crew. The seeming randomness of how policies are enforced or not enforced contributes to the passengers’ frustration and makes them more likely to take action against the airline.
By: Laurel Francoeur, Attorney and Founder of the Allergy Law Project, an advocacy group for individuals with food allergies. Author of “Flying with Food Allergies”.