United Airlines is under fire after a flight attendant ordered a pet dog to be placed in a passenger’s overhead bin on a flight from Houston. When United Flight 1284 arrived in New York, the French Bulldog “Kokito” was found dead. The horrific scene could well result in a tort action for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other claims. As a common carrier, United is subject to a high standard of care in the treatment of passengers.
While Catalina Robledo had a TSA-approved carrier for the ten-month old Kokito, the flight attendant reportedly was annoyed when the dog began to bark. The woman was dealing with two children including an infant. Passengers noticed that the dog had gone quiet during the flight.
It is against the airline’s policies to place pets in the overhead for obvious reasons so the flight attendant’s action were expressly in violation of even the carrier’s rules, which say pets are required to travel in carriers that “must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times.”
The woman was left sobbing and gasping on the floor after discovering her dead dog.
United is liable under the doctrine of “respondeat superior” for the negligent acts by their employees in the course of employment. The question is what is in the scope of employment. This was within that scope, even if it was in violation of airline policies. Employers can argue that an employee went rogue or outside the scope. The question is often whether an employer was on a “detour” or “frolic.” A detour can be outside of an e employer’s policies or guidelines but will be the basis for liability as sufficiently related to the employment. A frolic is a more serious deviation where employee is acting in his own capacity or for his own interests. That does not appear the case here.
United could argue that there was comparative negligence in the woman not checking on the dog during the flight, but this would be a rather feeble defense given the grossly negligent conduct of the flight attendant.
The result is both a public relations and legal nightmare for the not-so-“Friendly Skies.”