You may have heard: A Southwest Airlines passenger is suing Southwest for landing at the wrong airport.
It’s the kind of case we talked about back in law school, and I was intrigued enough to dig up the court complaint down in Missouri. I’ve included it at the bottom of this story.
But I think the most important line in the entire filing is one most people have missed:
“Plaintiff is requesting damages in the amount of $74,999.99 and nothing more.”
It’s an odd strange number, right? It turns out there’s a smart strategic reason behind the decision to use it–heck, I’d call it brilliant. Below, we’ll go through this strange case, why the plaintiff is suing for exactly one penny under $75 grand, and what all of this means for you as a business leader.
(I’ve asked both the plaintiff’s lawyer and Southwest Airlines for comment. Neither responded.)
The wrong airport
Quick, important fact: There are two airports servicing tiny Branson, Missouri: Branson Airport, which at the time had regular Southwest Airlines service, and the smaller Taney County airport, with a runway barely half the length of Branson’s.
Somehow, the captain and first officer of Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago mixed up the airports–which are only seven miles apart–and landed at the wrong one.
Nobody was physically injured–but careers were ended and things could have been much worse. Passengers allegedly 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: “[T]he 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, and says he realized well before the plane landed–even if the pilots didn’t–that 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 take-off.”
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 big question is simply: why not just round things up a penny and ask for $75,000.
The reason stems from the fact that there are two U.S. court systems: the federal system and the state systems. And, even if a plaintiff files a suit in state court, the defendant can sometimes move (“remove it” in the legal language) it to federal court.
Most often, the defendant does this by showing that the plaintiff and defendants are from different states–but also that the amount at stake is more than $75,000. Suing for exactly one penny less than that blocks Southwest from removing the case to the federal court.
“It’s clear [the plaintiff in this case] wants to be in state court and is therefore staying under the monetary threshold for removal to federal court,” said Paul Geller, an experienced civil litigator and a partner at New York-based Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, who is not involved in this case.
“While I don’t necessarily ascribe 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 (through removal, where permissible),” Geller continued.
“Flight Options Plummet at Branson Airport”
Geller went on to call the idea that state courts are always more plaintiff-friendly “an urban myth.” And I think he might be right, in many cases.
But here, several things make filing (and staying) in state court utterly brilliant, in my opinion. If you’re a business owner, or you can ever imagine being a party to a civil lawsuit, you’ll want to pay attention.
First, there’s the fact that five months after this incident–June 4, 2014–Southwest stopped flying into Branson.
You can imagine why this might make sense, business-wise: Taney County, where Brnson is located, only has about 51,000 year-round residents, although it is a tourist destination. Still, 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. And 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 everything it could to try this case as far away as possible.
50 miles–and a lifetime away
The closest federal court to Branson is 50 miles north, in Springfield.
That means that if Southwest Airlines could remove this case to federal court, they’d be able take it right out of the immediate county where this all happened–a community that Southwest decided a few years ago isn’t significant enough for its business.
And this isn’t just about the location of the courtroom; to my mind it’s about the makeup of the jury pool. Find jurors closer to Springfield, Missouri, and they 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 a some who maybe knew someone who lost a job after Southwest and Frontier pulled out, or who don’t like that the big airlines think their hometown is just a punchline.
In other words, maybe you assume that a Branson jury would be predisposed to find for a plaintiff who lived in your town, and who isn’t asking for all the money in the world–and would find against the giant corporation with the out-of-state headquarters that allegedly did him wrong.
So you’d want to keep things in state court, in Branson. And because the plaintiff asked for one penny less than is required for a removal to federal court, Southwest seems stuck.
Brilliant, to my mind. Or else maybe this is all just about making it harder for Southwest’s lawyers and witnesses to travel to the trial in Branson.
Because as we’ve seen, Southwest doesn’t fly there anymore.