A lawsuit launched by an allergic passenger who reported suffering anaphylaxis during a domestic flight has been thrown out of court, a judgment that one legal expert fears will make it increasingly difficult for allergic passengers to hold airlines responsible for their care.
Alisa Gleason, a California woman with a severe peanut allergy, knew that traveling to Florida with her family meant she would have to take precautions. After flying to Orlando without issue, Gleason says that she notified multiple United Airlines employees of her peanut allergy before boarding a flight to Chicago on her way home to Sacramento on May 28, 2011.
United Airlines does not serve peanuts on their flights, but the airline’s allergy policy is that flight crew will not make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating peanuts or peanut products during a flight with an allergic person on board. In her lawsuit, Gleason says that at least one United employee had told her that an announcement would be made. But upon boarding, the flight crew would not do so.
Approximately an hour into the flight and with at least one nearby passenger eating peanuts, the lawsuit says Gleason “began to experience initial physical symptoms of a severe peanut allergy attack.” She used Benadryl and her asthma inhaler, but her condition continued to worsen. Flight attendants and medical personnel attended to Gleason and, according to the lawsuit, “eventually informed the pilot that plaintiff would not survive if the plane continued on to Chicago.”
The pilot made an emergency landing in Missouri, where Gleason was taken to the hospital and admitted into the intensive care unit for two days.
Following this incident, Gleason sued the airline. However, the case was recently dismissed on May 20, 2015. California District Court judge Morris England ruled that the federal Airline Deregulation Act takes precedence over Gleason’s claims. He found that the state cannot “enact or enforce a law … related to price, route, or service of an air carrier.”
“Gleason sued United for negligence, emotional distress, and breach of contract, which are all based on state law,” explains Laurel Francoeur, an attorney and allergy advocate. “The court held that because her case involved state law and was directly related to the service provided – or in this case, not provided – by United, the law prevented her from suing the airline.”
According to Francoeur, who has written a book about flying with food allergies, United Airlines is now asking the court to order Gleason to pay nearly $10,000 to reimburse the costs of the lawsuit.
So how does this case affect other allergic travelers? “Unfortunately, this means that an allergic passenger has almost no personal recourse against an airline,” Francoeur told Allergic Living. “Federal laws do not allow a passenger to sue for claims related to his/her allergy, and now this court is affirming that the allergic passenger has no state law remedies either.”
The allergy advocate explained that this verdict shows that, not only is there a good chance an allergic passenger will lose a lawsuit, but a complainant may also be on the hook for the airline’s court costs. “The scales are tipped in the airline’s favor,” she says.
For more, read: The Allergy Law Project’s blog post about this case, Grounded: Allergic Passenger’s Suit Dismissed