Flight attendants play a vital role in commercial air transportation. Not only do they help facilitate travel, they also serve a critical function in the event of an emergency. In addition, according to a new ruling from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, statements made by flight attendants to opposing counsel in a lawsuit can bind the company.
That ruling comes in a somewhat unusual context. In 2016, the Plaintiff, Regina Raub, was injured while traveling on a US Airways flight from Cancun, Mexico to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when the aircraft unexpectedly encountered some turbulence. The Plaintiff subsequently hired a lawyer, who in turn contacted two of the flight attendants and asked them questions about what happened on the flight. The Plaintiff later sued both US Airways and the FAA for damages. When US Airways found out that the Plaintiff’s lawyer had spoken with the flight attendants, US Airways filed a complaint with the Court arguing that the Plaintiff’s lawyer had violated professional ethics rules by speaking with them without first seeking permission from the airline’s lawyers.
In looking at whether the rules were violated, the Court had to determine whether the flight attendants had the ability to bind the company through their words or deeds. The Court noted that:
Flight attendants are generally responsible for the safety of passengers in their custody. Statements made by the flight attendants regarding the flight and their acts and omissions during the flight that caused plaintiff’s injuries could certainly subject US Airways to liability. Viewing [the lawyer’s] communications in light of the circumstances of the case, the Court concludes that the flight attendants were represented parties because they are persons ‘whose act or omission in connection to the matter may be imputed to the organization for purposes of civil or criminal liability.’ Thus, [the lawyer’s] communications with the flight attendants violated [the rules of professional conduct].
The Court also noted that it was possible that general statements made by the flight attendants, as opposed to those made in connection with the incident, could also bind the company if they were speaking about matters within the scope of their employment. Ultimately the Court did not rule on this issue because there was insufficient evidence of the substance of the communications by the flight attendants or the scope of the flight attendants’ duties.
In this case, the Plaintiff’s lawyer told the flight attendants she was thinking about suing the FAA over the incident, giving the flight attendants the mistaken impression that she was friendly and they were actually protecting the company. While this was not a lie, as she did, in fact, sue the FAA, she also intended to use the statements against their employer. As hard as it is to believe, sometimes lawyers can be sneaky and mislead people into saying things against their interests. This case highlights the importance of ensuring that all persons in an organization, from the top management to line personnel, know that they should not be speaking with third persons about incidents or accidents, no matter how friendly they might seem.