Can You Sue an Airline for a Travel Mishap?

Can You Sue an Airline for a Travel Mishap?

by Ellen Rosner Feig, December 2009

You and your significant other have saved for a dream cruise through the Virgin Islands. You've been counting down to departure day, buying new swimsuits and finding books to read on deck. But when you arrive at the airport to check-in for your flight to St. Thomas, the flight is overbooked. But that's impossible. After all, you bought the tickets months ago. And missing the flight means you'll miss the boat. While you frantically book tickets on another airline, your original airline refuses to reimburse you. But wait, do they have to? What are your rights?

Let's look a little closer into the world of small claims.

Small Claims Court

Small Claims court gives people who want to recoup a relatively small amount of money an easy inlet into the court system. Disputes are typically resolved in front of a judge without attorneys or juries. In small claims court, you represent yourself in front of the judge and in the presence of the opposing party. A judge ruling in your favor could mean getting back money you're owed or being reimbursed for a faulty service. Each state has its own limits for the amount of money one can pursue in small claims court. The rules of small claims vary from state to state but all require evidence of financial harm and that the party causing harm refuses to pay.

A traveler may choose to sue an airline in small claims court when they have been wronged in such a manner that additional expense is incurred and the airline refuses reimbursement. Most states limit monetary awards in small claims court to between $3,000 and $7,500. A traveler may not sue in small claims court when an airline loses property or damages goods.

Factors to consider when filing

Prior to pursuing action in small claims court, one must determine the following:

  • Is the amount of the claim smaller than the state or local law monetary limit?
  • Does the airline do business in the court in which you are filing?
  • Does the airline have a contract of carriage which must be followed?
  • Has the airline been given the opportunity to follow any of its obligations?
  • Can the dispute be settled out of court?
  • Is it a hardship for you to appear in court?

In many instances, disputes involving air carriers can be resolved outside of a court of law through patience and perseverance. The Department of Transportation has an Office of Consumer Affairs set up to address and to investigate such complaints.

How to file a claim

Once you have decided to sue an airline carrier in small claims court, you should contact the clerk's office for court procedures including filing fees, jurisdictional issues and ceiling on amount of money that can be awarded. It is also important to find out whether or not there is a time limit on filing the particular claim.

When filing out any small claims paperwork, it is critical to be honest and accurate. Remember to find out the legal address and official or corporate name of the airline. Then, make sure the airline has an office or has flights that leave from the area. This will give the courts jurisdiction or legal power over the airline to call them into court.

Once the trial begins the judge will request any documents in your possession including tickets, letters about the matter, canceled checks or receipts, evidence of damaged items. The judge will weigh all the evidence put forth and will decide for one party. If the plaintiff wins a judgment will be handed down advising the defendant that money is owed.

It is important to be aware that the court will not be responsible for actually collecting any money for you. It is entirely your responsibility. Collecting the money owed is the most difficult part of the process so be patient.

The best idea is to try to settle with the airline carrier before pursuing legal action. In fact, settling out of court should always be your first line of defense. If you can save the time and expense of appearing in court, that's preferable.