The Brancatelli File



April 29, 2004 -- Do you ever get so angry at your airline that you feel like suing?

People sometimes do. And if you want to do it, there's a way to drag the airlines to the bar of justice at minimum cost to you and with maximum inconvenience to the airline.

Of course, the airlines immediately challenge your right to sue them whenever you file suit in the most logical venue, your state or local court. Citing an imprecisely worded clause in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the airlines routinely claim that a plaintiff's only legal recourse is the federal courts.

"They always use that defense," says Barry Roberts, a well-known travel-industry lawyer who has often beaten the airlines in court.

In fact, airlines sometimes tie up irate passengers for years while they contest the jurisdictional issue. Airlines frequently go all the way to the Supreme Court on the matter of jurisdiction. This delaying action can eat up years--and cost an unhappy traveler tens of thousands of dollars. Eventually, airlines almost always win this legal marathon by default, exhausting a traveler's time, patience and funds without ever having to defend against the substance of the allegations.

But there's a better way to sue an airline: Drag it into your local small-claims court. For you, it's fast, it's cheap and you don't need a lawyer. For the airlines, however, it is time-consuming and expensive, since they are usually required to dispatch legal talent to your local small-claims court. If you do it right, then you've got a great chance of receiving substantial financial restitution (up to $10,000 in some states) with very little financial risk (legal fees are usually less than $100).

Small-claims courts, are "very effective, very good forums for consumers. Airlines must appear" and there is no question of jurisdiction, according to Judge Thomas A. Dickerson.

Dickerson should know. He literally wrote the book. His text, Travel Law, is frequently cited and his legal insights on travel are highly regarded.

The increase in the number of disgruntled travelers taking airlines into small-claims court led the usually docile Department of Transportation to create a publication called Air Travelers: Tell It to The Judge. It's a useful primer on how passengers can use small-claims courts to bring outlaw airlines to justice. If you're thinking of suing an airline, make sure to download a copy of the pamphlet.

Want encouragement? Durant Imboden took Northwest Airlines to small-claims court in Minneapolis several years ago and beat it for almost $4,000 in travel vouchers. Imboden, who manages, eventually posted the story of his small-claims victory on his Web site. Imboden's tale of woe--and his legal success--is required reading for anyone considering filing a small-claims suit against an airline.

"It was easier to sue them in small-claims court than deal with their customer-service department," Imboden told me several years ago. "At least I got a resolution and some action. I was getting no satisfaction whatever from the traditional channels."

Bob Bruss, the nationally known real estate expert, has also beaten an airline in small-claims court. In fact, he's beaten one carrier, United Airlines, at least five times.

"I've only lost once and it was my own fault," Bruss explains. "I didn't have all my paperwork in order. But I've won all the other times because I had the proof and they clearly were in breach of contract."

Bruss, who's based in the San Francisco area and holds United Mileage Plus Premier Executive status, once won a small-claims judgment against United in the amount of $1,092.50. That sum was reimbursement for $26 of court costs and the $1,066.50 he paid to upgrade to first class after United refused to honor his original first-class ticket, which had been reserved months previously using an upgrade award.

After his string of victories, Bruss, who has a law degree but does not practice, has worked up some tips for other frequent travelers who may be considering a small-claims suit.

"Use small-claims court only as a last resort, only after you've exhausted your options with an airline's customer-service department," Bruss suggests. "But keep copies of all of your correspondence. That shows you've made a good-faith effort to solve the problem. And, when you write a complaint letter, write it knowing that it may become evidence in a small-claims action."

Don't expect to make a long, impassioned case in front of the small-claims judge, he adds. "You get maybe five minutes to make your case, that's why the paper trail is so important."

Lastly, Bruss suggests, "bring the right types of cases to small-claims court. Suits claiming fraud and negligence don't work well. The cases that are easiest to prove are when the airline has physically damaged you or your possessions."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.