Friday, February 23, 2007

CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE MODERN ERA


According to a recent account provided by The Indiana Jury Verdict Reporter, on December 28, 2003, 39 -year-old John Cerqueira boarded an American Airlines flight in Boston. The flight was bound for Fort Lauderdale from Logan International Airport. Cerqueira, although originally a native of Portugal, is now a U.S. citizen. He is dark-complected, and is said to have a Middle Eastern appearance.

Mr. Cerqueira boarded the flight alone, and took his seat. He happened to be seated next to two gentlemen who were Israeli citizens. He then went to the lavatory. After returning to his seat, he briefly turned on his computer, then turned it off, and went to sleep. Minutes later, he was awakened and escorted off of the plane by the flight crew and turned over to police. The two Israeli passengers were also escorted off of the airplane.

It turns out that Mr. Cerqueira and the two Israeli passengers were removed from the flight because the flight crew and its captain suspected them of being terrorists. They were suspected because of the fact that they had Middle Eastern appearances, conversed in a foreign language, and had made lengthy visits to the restroom. In fact, they were not terrorists.

After being removed from the flight, Mr. Cerqueira was interrogated by police officers for several hours until it was determined that he was not a terrorist. After he was cleared by the police, Mr. Cerqueira attempted to get a seat on another American Airlines flight, but the airline still refused to accommodate him.

Mr. Cerqueira subsequently filed a lawsuit against the airline, claiming that he had been the recipient of improper discrimination simply because of his Middle Eastern appearance. His attorneys demanded both compensatory and punitive damages on his behalf.

In defense, American Airlines claimed that it had acted properly under the circumstances. It noted Mr. Cerqueira's allegedly long restroom break, his presence with the two other passengers, and his reportedly strange reaction to exit row instructions as factors that justified its actions.

The case went before a jury in Boston. After hearing all of the evidence, the jury ruled in favor of Mr. Cerqueira. It awarded him $130,00 in compensatory damages, and $270,000 more in punitives, for a total verdict of $400,000.

This case should provide a lesson for us all. It is all too easy to judge a book by its cover. While it may be understandable, in the post-911 world, that we are all a bit uneasy and at times fearful, we must be cautious to insure that the rights of some are not abridged because of those fears.

8 Comments:

Blogger Coop said...

American Airlines was correct in their first response to this issue. However, Mr Cerqueira should not have been denied a seat on another flight. Compensation is due but, 400k? I don't think so. Two roundtrip flights for two anywhere he wants to go and 5k would have been plenty. These awards are getting out of hand.
Did the Israeli's file a lawsuit for their trouble and embarassment?

2:59 PM  
Blogger John Manzo said...

Wow. Talk about a tough one.

I do, on one level, understand the initial response of American Airlines. Upon the questioning of the man and recognizing that he was mistakenly removed, they needed to make good on his travel plans with some sort of a 'bonus' attached.

The airline's refusal to accomodate him was just begging for a lawsuit which they got and, frankly, rightfully lost. I have no pity on American Airlines for this.

Makes me wonder what happened to the employees who didn't let him on.

Jet Blue perhaps? :-)

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you think about the amount of the verdict?

6:35 AM  
Blogger Meatbe said...

Coop: In the account that I read, there was no indication that the Israeli passengers also pursued litigation. It seems that they would have been justified in doing so.


Anon: At first blush, the amount of this verdict does seem to be rather excessive. However, it is important to note that we do not know all of the facts that may have been presented to the jury. What were the consequences to Mr. Cerqueira as a result of his being detained and missing the flight?

According to the law, the jury's verdict had to be supported by the evidence. Did Cerqueira lose the final opportunity to visit with a dying mother as a result of the delay? Did he miss out on an important business meeting in which he stood to make big bucks? We don't know these details, but they could be very important in determining whether the jury's verdict was supported by the evidence.

Keep in mind, also, that there were two types of damages awarded here. First, Mr. Cerqueira was awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $130,000. Those were the damages that were calculated to compensate him for the actual loss and injury that he incurred.

The majority of this verdict--in the sum of $270,000--was for punitive damages. Punitive damages are issued when the jury feels that an extra amount is warranted, in order to deter a defendant from engaging in similar conduct in the future. In this case, the jury apparently felt that it needed to send a strong message to American Airlines that such conduct would not be tolerated in the future.

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