Air Rage: Choice of Law for Intentional Torts Occurring in Flight over International Waters

Article excerpt

I. AN INSTANCE OF AIR RAGE IN FLIGHT OVER INTERNATIONAL WATERS: THE HENCH CASE(1)

Jennifer Olson, a fifteen-year veteran airline flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, was allegedly attacked and seriously injured when Christopher Bull Hench, a passenger, tried to break into the cockpit of an aircraft while it was over international waters en route from Cincinnati, Ohio to Frankfurt, Germany.(2) Ms. Olson was assigned to work in the first class section of the aircraft, adjacent to the cockpit door.(3) Mr. Hench, a passenger in the business class section of the aircraft, was separated from Ms. Olson by a bulkhead and curtain.(4)

The flight began rather routinely.(5) As part of the preliminary flight preparation, all passengers were given the requisite safety instructions orally as well as by video.(6) These instructions included information that this was a non-smoking flight.(7)

Around midnight, a flight attendant working in the business class smelled smoke coming from the lavatory in her work area.(8) No passengers were seen leaving the lavatory so the flight attendants decided to monitor the situation more closely.(9) The flight attendants noticed Mr. Hench, on two different occasions, exiting the lavatory in a "cloud of smoke" even after being repeatedly warned that smoking was not permitted on the flight for safety reasons.(10) The flight attendants approached Mr. Hench several times to advise him that smoking was not permitted on the flight, but he continuously ignored them by putting headphones on his head.(11)

After several unsuccessful attempts to keep Mr. Hench from smoking, the flight attendants approached the captain.(12) Alarmed by the situation, he sent the co-pilot to speak with the disobedient passenger.(13) Mr. Hench repeatedly questioned the co-pilot's authority, put on his headset and refused to acknowledge the co-pilot's presence.(14) The co-pilot told Mr. Hench that "he wasn't finished with him" and turned toward the front of the aircraft.(15) Soon after the co-pilot walked to the front of the aircraft, Mr. Hench bolted toward the cockpit.(16) As he proceeded from business class to first class heading toward the cockpit door, he shoved Ms. Olson out of his way.(17)

Mr. Hench reached the cockpit door and began pounding on it.(18) The pilot was alone in the cockpit, and inadvertently unlatched the door.(19) It began to open and Ms. Olson placed herself between Mr. Hench and the cockpit door.(20) The passenger continued to pound on the door, struggled with and shoved Ms. Olson.(21) In spite of equipment that muffled his hearing, the captain heard Ms. Olson being slammed against the cockpit door.(22) While struggling to keep Mr. Hench from entering the cockpit, Ms. Olson grabbed the emergency telephone to notify the captain to re-latch the cockpit door.(23) Eventually, the co-pilot returned and accompanied Mr. Hench to his seat.(24) At the request of the captain of the aircraft, an attendant "recruit[ed] two of the largest passengers she could find" to assist in restraining Mr. Hench if another altercation ensued.(25)

Mr. Hench continued to berate the attendants making angry comments and accusations.(26) He also demanded alcoholic beverages and was aggressive and hostile when service was refused.(27) The captain confronted Mr. Hench and promised him the authorities would meet him in Frankfurt.(28) When the aircraft landed in Frankfurt, Germany, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials and the local police escorted Mr. Hench off the aircraft.(29)

As a result of the altercation with Mr. Hench, Ms. Olson alleges that she has sustained severe back, neck and other injuries that have kept her from full-time employment.(30) She alleges that she has been able to work sporadically, but continues treatment with a neurologist, physical therapist and primary care physician.(31) In addition, Ms. Olson is receiving treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. …