John Cerqueira was sitting next to two Israelis boisterously talking in English and Hebrew on a 2003 Boston-Fort Lauderdale American Airlines flight, when the flight crew decided that all three raised a concern. “Police determined that none of the men was a threat after questioning them, evacuating the plane, and rescreening all baggage.” Cerqueira complained that AA wouldn’t give him another flight, and sued for discrimination. A jury awarded $130k in compensatory damages and another $270k in punitives.
This is the first case of its kind to come before a jury since 9/11 (other plaintiffs with similar cases have settled out of court). The verdict has some flight crews fearful it will set a precedent and discourage concerned crews from taking action in the future.
Spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association (APA) Captain Denny Breslin told the Boston Herald, “[Ehlers] did what any one of us would have done, especially back in ’03. We’re human beings, not mind-readers. What would [the plaintiff] have us do? Ignore our concerns?”
Air Line Pilots Association spokesman Pete Janhunen said the verdict could impinge on a pilot’s authority granted by the FAA. “The pilot in command is responsible for everything that happens involving that flight. We need to ensure that the authority of the captain is protected so that they’re never intimidated or afraid to make the right call.”
(Shelley Murphy, “Jury awards airline passenger $400,000”, Boston Globe, Jan. 16; “Ejected Passenger Awarded $400K By Federal Jury”, Aero-News Net, Jan. 16; Laurel J. Sweet, “Pilots blast court’s ‘outrageous’ verdict: Defend ejection of suspicious passenger”, Boston Herald, Jan. 16). (NB: this John Cerqueira was not the much younger WTC hero who carried a wheelchair-bound woman 68 stories down and out of the North Tower.)
Update: It’s unclear from press coverage whether the lawsuit was over the initial questioning (which inconvenienced everyone) or the refusal to allow Cerqueira to board a second flight, which does seem less defensible. His lawyer’s comment implies both, however.
[Cerqueira] acted hostilely toward a flight attendant before boarding the flight, … boarded the flight out of turn, that plaintiff spent an inordinate amount of time in the lavatory facilities on board the flight before it departed, … appeared to be feigning sleep during the hectic boarding process, and … reacted inappropriately to flight crew instructions during an exit row safety briefing. AA further expects the evidence to show that the two passengers seated next to the plaintiff in the exit row approached the captain of the flight before boarding and made strange comments to him, that those passengers made odd comments to passengers aboard the flight, and that those passengers acted inappropriately during an exit row safety briefing.
…State Police and TSA believed it necessary to rescreen all of the passengers and to have bomb-sniffing dogs come aboard the aircraft after another passenger reported that one of the removed passengers had a box-cutter taken away from him at the security check point.