Appeals panel: Airlines aren't breaching contract when put passengers' checked bags on separate flights

By Dana Herra | Jan 15, 2016

An airline is under no obligation to make sure passengers and their baggage are transported on the same flight, an Illinois appeals court ruled, upholding a decision of a Cook County judge in dismissing a class action lawsuit on the question.

Plaintiff Gina Spadoni had filed a single-count class-action lawsuit against United Airlines in Cook County Circuit Court in 2014, claiming the airline breached its contract with her when it placed her baggage on a different Chicago-to-Los Angeles flight than the one on which she was traveling. According to court documents, when Spadoni arrived in Los Angeles, she was dismayed to find her baggage had not. She filed a class action lawsuit against the airline on behalf of herself and all other Illinois passengers who had found themselves in a similar situation.

In her suit, Spadoni claimed that when a weight-restricted aircraft was at or near its weight capacity, passenger bags were left off or removed in order to accommodate cargo shipments. According to court documents, this maximized the airlines’ profits, since cargo shippers were refunded their money if their items did not ship as booked, but passengers’ checked baggage fees are non-refundable.

Cook County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Kennedy dismissed Spadoni’s lawsuit in January 2015, noting the contract it referred to, United’s Contract of Carriage, expressly gives the airline the right to transport a passenger’s checked bag on a different flight if it deems carrying it on the same flight is “impractical.” In appealing the court’s decision, Spadoni argued that prioritizing cargo shipments over the checked bags of paid passengers is unreasonable behavior that is not expressly permitted in the contract and would not be expected by a reasonable customer.

“It was practical, possible, and reasonable to transport Plaintiff’s piece of checked baggage on the same aircraft as Plaintiff by removing pieces of cargo from the aircraft’s cargo compartment in order to arrive at an acceptable aircraft weight,” according to Spadoni’s appeal.

Two members of a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court agreed with the circuit court’s finding that, though the suit had but one complaint, it argued two bases for the alleged breach – a violation of the terms of the contract and a violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In arguing for dismissal, United claimed the plaintiff could not identify any terms of the contract that were expressly violated. In addressing the good faith argument, United said any implied covenant of good faith was preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

Though the majority of the appellate justices agreed with United’s arguments and the circuit court’s dismissal, Justice Sheldon A. Harris dissented, saying the airline’s definition of what is impractical was not motivated by anything but potential profit.

“[T]he circuit court erred in failing to recognize that a party having sole discretion does not allow that party to commit an abuse of that discretion,” Harris wrote. “The error was further compounded by concluding that Defendant’s motivation or reasoning in exercising that discretion is immaterial.”

If the airline does indeed prioritize cargo shipments over checked bags, Harris wrote, the “decision on whether to put a passenger’s bag on the same flight is not based on practicality but on economics, i.e., what will be most profitable for Defendant.”

Whether Spadoni would be able to prove her case at trial is irrelevant, Harris wrote; the material fact is that she did state a case that the circuit court should have allowed to go to trial.

Justice Laura C. Liu wrote the majority opinion, with Justice Maureen E. Connors concurring.

Spadoni was represented in the action by the Zimmerman Law Offices, of Chicago.

United Airlines was defended by the firm of Schiff Hardin, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois First District Appellate Court Schiff Hardin LLP United Airlines Zimmerman Law Offices, P. C.

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