A Passenger Sued Southwest Airlines for Exactly $74,999.99 and Not a Penny More. Here's Why
Why not round up to $75,000? they asked.
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It’s the kind of case we talked about back in law school, and I was intrigued enough to dig up the Missouri-based court complaint in this case to learn more. And, the most important line in the entire filing is this:
Plaintiff is requesting damages in the amount of $74,999.99 and nothing more.
It's a weird number, right? It turns out there's a smart reason behind the decision to use it.
Bottom line upfront, it's about understanding the rules of any contest or negotiation, and identifying weaknesses that can enable a small player to take on an exponentially larger entity. It's about how if you plan things right, David can always beat Goliath.
(I asked both Southwest and the plaintiff's lawyer for comment. Neither responded, although the plaintiff’s lawyer’s office confirmed the case is ongoing.)
The wrong airport.
Quick, important background: There are two airports servicing tiny Branson, Missouri:
Branson Airport, which at the time had regular Southwest Airlines service, and
Taney County airport, which is much smaller, and has a runway barely half the length of the one at Branson Airport.
Somehow, the captain and first officer of Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago mixed up the airports--they’re are only seven miles apart--and landed at the wrong one.
Nobody was physically injured--but at least one career was ended. And, things could have been much worse. Passengers apparently had to wait for two hours after landing before being allowed off, while the plane was filled with smoke.
"We landed very abruptly, with the pilot applying the brakes very hard. We smelled burnt rubber from the stop," another passenger (not the plaintiff in this lawsuit, as far as I know) told Forbes at the time, adding: "The mood is somber now that we realized we were 40 feet from the edge of a cliff."
The passenger who sued Southwest, Troy Haines, lived in the area and had flown into Branson Airport many times. He says he realized well before the plane landed--even if the pilots didn't--they were at the wrong airport, "with a much smaller runway."
He was "immediately struck with fear and anxiety over potentially crashing," according to his lawsuit, and he later "suffered severe mental anguish, fear and anxiety, including a panic attack which caused him to be removed from another airline prior to takeoff."
That in turn led him to stop flying, which meant taking a job that didn't require travel--"at a substantially diminished salary."
Whether you think the lawsuit sounds reasonable or not, the obvious question is simply: Why not just round things up a penny and ask for $75,000?
I can imagine all the lawyers reading this might know. The reason stems from the fact that there are two U.S. court systems: federal and state. Even if a plaintiff files a suit in state court, the defendant can sometimes move it ("remove it" in the legal language) to federal court.
Most often, the defendant does this by showing that (a) the plaintiff and defendants are from different states, and (b) that the amount at stake is more than $75,000.
Therefore, suing for exactly one penny under that threshold blocks Southwest from removing the case to federal court.
"It's clear [the plaintiff in this case] wants to be in state court," Paul Geller, an experienced civil litigator and a partner at New York-based Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, who is not involved in this case, told me. "While I don't necessarily subscribe to it, there is a general overlay in litigation that plaintiffs want to be in state court, and defendants try to find any way to get to federal court.”
"Flight options plummet at Branson Airport."
There’s actually something more going on here, though, which make filing (and staying) in state court in this particular case utterly brilliant, in my opinion.
First, there's the fact that five months after this incident--June 4, 2014--Southwest stopped flying into Branson.
It makes sense business-wise: Taney County, where Branson is located, has only about 51,000 year-round residents. And when Southwest left (along with Frontier soon after, the only other big airline that had served the area), the airport was hit hard.
In fact, the last time news broke that Branson might be attracting a major carrier, it was all part of an elaborate April Fool's joke on the part of Sir Richard Branson (same last name as the city), the CEO and founder of now-defunct Virgin America.
I don't know the exact economic impact of the airport's demise. But I'm sure it caused damage, as outlined in one newspaper article, "Flight options plummet at Missouri's new Branson Airport."
I'm also confident that seeing your hometown dismissed as too insignificant for commercial flights has to sting.
All of which might make the plaintiff want more Branson-area jurors, while Southwest might want to do everything it can to try this case as far away as possible.
Fifty miles--and a world away.
Now, take it one step further: The closest federal court to Branson is 50 miles north, in Springfield.
That means, if Southwest Airlines could remove the case to federal court, they'd be able to take it out of the county where this all happened.
And this isn't just about the location of the courtroom; to my mind it's about the makeup of the jury pool.
Jurors closer to Springfield, Missouri, might not feel one way or another about Southwest.
But pull together a jury in Branson, and a reasonable lawyer might imagine you'd wind up with someone who knew someone who lost a job after Southwest and Frontier pulled out, or who is now inconvenienced by the lack of air service—or who just doesn't like that the big airlines now think their hometown is just a punch line.
In other words, maybe you could assume a Branson jury in state court would be predisposed to find for a plaintiff who lived in its town—and find against the giant corporation with the out-of-state headquarters that allegedly did him wrong.
Or else, maybe this is all just about making it harder for all Southwest's lawyers and witnesses, every time they have to travel for the trial in Branson.
Because as we've seen, Southwest doesn't fly there anymore.