Northwest Passengers Unite in Suit
JOSEPH ALTMAN Jr.
Jun. 18, 1999
DETROIT (AP) _ Passengers who were stranded on the runway at Detroit Metropolitan Airport during a January snowstorm can join forces against Northwest Airlines in a class-action lawsuit, a judge ruled Friday.
The ruling allows about 8,000 passengers _ who in some cases were trapped on airplanes for more than eight hours Jan. 3 _ to join four lawsuits already filed.
Todd Nemecek, who was trapped on the tarmac for several hours while trying to return to his home in Kansas City, called the ruling ``great news.''
``In the class action, we don't really expect to ever see anything, but at least the airlines know they can't do whatever they please,'' said Nemecek. ``They lost me as a paying customer.
Attorneys Larry Charfoos and Geoffrey Fieger, who will be chief counsel for the plaintiffs, said thousands of individual claims would have strained the legal system and caused an undue burden on passengers who live outside Michigan.
Northwest attorneys argued that there were so many different situations among the passengers that the lawsuits didn't warrant class-action status. They said each passenger suffered different emotional injuries that must be individually weighed.
But Curtis ruled that each passenger's situation was similar enough to warrant a class-action suit.
``I don't think it matters that on some flights, toilets may have overflowed or some stock of food and beverage were low on different flights,'' she said. Even though ``there may be differences in terms of injuries or allegations of some class members in this case, there are common questions that predominate.''
More than a dozen planes were left stranded on runways during the storm that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow because Wayne County plows couldn't clear the airfield.
Northwest spokesman Jon Austin said by phone from Minneapolis that the class-action ruling was expected.
``This is a procedural type of motion,'' he said. ``Certainly, it doesn't go to the merits of the case. It doesn't change our expectations at all.''
The court determined as many as 8,000 passengers will be eligible to join the class based on the number of apology letters and free flight coupons that Northwest sent out after the storm. Attorneys will now begin notifying potential plaintiffs through mailings and advertisements, said Fieger.
A U.S. Department of Transportation report released earlier this month found that Northwest did not violate any federal regulations but that conditions were ``severe enough to have jeopardized passengers' well-being.''
The airline reviewed its operations after the incident and said it made changes to emergency procedures.
Friday's ruling came one day after the Air Transport Association announced it adopted a voluntary passengers' Bill of Rights. It includes promises to inform customers of the lowest fare, provide prompt ticket refunds and notify passengers of known delays and cancellations.