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Lost airline baggage: Can you sue?

Have you ever had your baggage not arrive at the baggage carousel when you do? Of course you have. Have you ever heard of someone filing a $15 class action lawsuit against an airline for late baggage? Now you have.

US Airways: $15 a bag

US Airways charges its customers $15 to check the first bag, $25 for the second bag. Hayley Hickcox-Huffman bought a ticket on US Airways to fly from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to San Luis Obispo, California. She checked one bag and was charged $15. Her bag did not show up at the baggage carousel, but US Airways delivered it to her the next day.

Most people would be pleased the airline delivered their bag so quickly, but HHH apparently is not most people. Instead she filed a class action lawsuit to get her $15 back, claiming she would like to represent all US Airways passengers traveling on domestic flights who paid a baggage fee, but whose bags were delayed or lost.

I'm not sure whether HHH is trying to get rich here or is a person of extreme principle, who has access to a free lawyer.

Terms of transportation

US Airways has a so-called "Terms of Transportation," which it imposes as a contract with all of its customers. Among other things, the terms limit the dollar amount a flying customer can claim for "loss, delay, or damage" of checked baggage. Point being, the terms of that language assume there is some liability for loss, delay or damage to checked bags. That became a key fact in this federal case.

Airline deregulation act

Here is the boring part of this Law Review (or should we say most boring part?). In the old days, airlines use to operate like a public utility with lavish service, but higher fares. That all changed in 1978 when Congress deregulated the industry to promote "maximum reliance on competitive market forces." The Airline Deregulation Act preempted most aspects of airlines.

Skipping over the Court of Appeals' tedious legal analysis, it concluded that HHH's claim for $15 was not preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act. Therefore she could get her $15 back because US Airways "did not do what it promised to do and yet kept her money." Airlines are required to pay for lost, delayed or damaged bags, but this case focused solely on HHH recovering her $15 baggage fee. Weird.

So HHH gets her baggage fee back and apparently the right to make the same claim on behalf of a class of fliers whose baggage was delayed or lost.

Not so fast

Don't get too excited about getting rich off of US Airways' baggage policy, promising timely delivery of the first bag for a $15 fee. The court noted that airlines could (and you can be sure they will) offer any delayed baggage policy they choose, such as "first bag free" (those were the days), or "first bag $50, but our airline assumes no responsibility if your bag does not arrive at the carousel when you do."

The Court of Appeals suggested that airline passengers might not choose an airline that would not pay fliers if their baggage is late, but I'm pretty sure we are all looking at available flights, connections and price, not fine print about not refunding any baggage fee.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. His practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA's, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or http://www.portersimon.com. Like us on Facebook.