Awarded $3,100 In Damages In Breach-Of-Contract Suit
Continental Airlines probably wishes it had bumped someone
else -- anyone else-- off a Christmas 2004 flight
from Newark, NJ to Telluride, CO. Instead, the airline bumped
Thatcher A. Stone and his daughter from the overbooked plane.
Big mistake, as Stone is a New York-based aviation attorney,
according to the Washington Post, as well as a University of
Virginia law professor. After sending Continental two complaint
letters asking for greater financial compensation that just the
cost of the tickets, Stone sued the airline in small claims court
over breach of contract.
(Quick show of hands: who didn't see that one coming?)
The incident began last year, when Stone and his 13-year-old
daughter, Rebecca, were heading to Telluride for a week-long ski
trip. They checked their luggage and skis, and proceeded to their
gate -- but as the flight was boarding, Stone and his daughter were
told to step aside.
They had been bumped, as no amount of free drink coupons or
travel vouchers could convince two other passengers to give up
their seats on the overbooked -- as many holiday flights are --
airliner. When that happens, airlines are allowed to bump
passengers without their consent.
While Stone was eligible for a $400 reimbursement under federal
law -- as the airline was unable to find the two another flight out
until two days later -- that amount was hardly enough. According to
Stone, he was out $1,350 alone on the non-refundable lodging
And to make matters worse... remember those checked bags and
skis? Yep, they made it to Colorado, making it impossible for Stone
to book an alternative ski trip elsewhere -- he and his daughter
had no winter clothing.
Continental refunded the $2,000 cost of the two airline tickets,
according to the Post. Stone maintained, however, the
loss cost him much more than that, and the lawyer sent two
letters demanding that Continental reimburse him for the deposits
on the ski lodge, lift tickets, and equipment rental, as well as
compensation for the lost luggage.
Continental offered an additional $800; in response, Stone sued
the airline, and a jury awarded him $3,100 for his trouble -- not a
typical result in such cases.
What made the difference, according to Manhattan Civil Court
Judge Diane A. Lebedeff, was that Stone sued Continental not for
fraud, but for breach of contract -- which is allowed under New
York law if the passenger bought a ticket, was denied boarding,
refused the airline's compensation offer and suffered
"It is well settled that an award for inconvenience, delay and
uncertainty is cognizable under New York law," Lebedeff wrote in
her 13-page ruling. Lebedeff ruled that Continental failed to offer
any compensation to Stone in writing, which was required by
In the end, Stone was
awarded $1,360 for the non-refundable lodging expenses, $1,000 for
his delay and $750 for the loss of the use of the contents in his
luggage. The judge also added interest to the monetary awards from
Dec. 25, the date of the bumping.
Continental spokesman David Messing declined to comment on
whether the airline planned to appeal the ruling -- but he did
maintain the airline acted within the letter of the law.
"We are always sorry when this happens, but the Department of
Transportation allows overbooking of flights because so many
airline customers book flights and then do not show up without
previously canceling," Messing said in a statement. "If an oversale
occurs, we try to offer alternative flights, refund the ticket,
help make other arrangements, or offer some form of denied boarding
compensation, but that is not always acceptable to the
While it remains unclear if his case will set a precedent
allowing passengers to sue if they get bumped from a flight, Stone
urges all passengers to be aware of their rights whenever they fly
on a commercial airline.
"Figure out your costs, put all of that together in a letter,
and send it to the airline," the attorney said. "If they tell you
no, go to small claims court, where you can fight them
"They were betting that Thatcher Stone was some ignorant [jerk]
who didn't know how to get money out of Continental," Stone added.
"They picked the wrong guy."