Military veterans, and even a New York City firefighter, contacted a Biloxi attorney with travel horror stories after he filed a federal lawsuit against American Airlines on behalf of Army veteran Lisa McCombs, formerly of Gulfport, who described three days of humiliation and distress while trying to fly home with her service dog.
Attorney Christopher Van Cleave has amended the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, to show an alleged pattern of mistreatment by American Airlines and its representatives against disabled individuals with certified service dogs. Van Cleave asserts the airlines has failed to train its employees on the legally required treatment of disabled individuals traveling with service animals.
He hopes to prove American and its regional carrier, Envoy Air Inc., have exhibited negligence, breach of contract, fraud and bad faith, entitling McCombs to compensation and punitive damages over the October 2015 trip.
American and Envoy are asking Judge Sul Ozerden to dismiss the case. Attorneys for the airlines argue some of the claims are prohibited by federal law, while alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act do not in this case apply to private corporations.
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Panic attack ensues
Ozerden rejected the airlines’ request and allowed Van Cleave to amend the lawsuit, adding the examples he has collected from other passengers:
▪ A combat veteran said he and his wife were forced to miss a Wounded Warriors event after American Airlines employees threatened in April 2014 to physically remove him and service dog Bella from a flight out of Jacksonville, triggering his PTSD and forcing him to leave the airplane.
▪ A disabled man identified as Larry Stiff said an American Airlines agent yelled, “You’re not getting on this flight unless you pay $200” for service dog Maverick to fly in cargo, causing him to miss his flight in September 2015 from Hartford, Connecticut, to his home in Fort Worth, Texas. Stiff said an airlines supervisor booked him on a later flight at no additional charge.
▪ An Iraq combat veteran identified as Cpl. F said she had a “full-blown panic attack” in September 2015 after being forced off a crowded flight with service animal Dante and surrounded by American Airlines employees.
She said the employees peppered her with inappropriate and humiliating questions, such as, “You’re not blind — Why do you need a service dog?” The veteran said the original agent, who had assured her there would be no problem traveling with Dante, escorted her back onto the plane, where other passengers intervened and made room for the veteran and Dante.
▪ Gibson Craig, who recovered the bodies of friends and co-workers for months after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, said an American Airlines representative told him that he could step outside for some fresh air with service dog Mac on a layover to Chicago while returning home in May 2015 from Alaska.
“However,” the lawsuit says, “Mr. Craig and Mac were not allowed to come back inside and Mr. Craig was forced to rent a car and drive 19 hours back to Boston.”
The amended lawsuit also describes previously publicized incidents of American’s alleged mistreatment of customers traveling with service dogs because of PTSD, including retired Marine Capt. Jason Haag.
Airline on notice
In more than one case, the lawsuit describes passengers intervening to defend the disabled individuals traveling with service dogs. The lawsuit also includes several examples of American Airlines employees assuring passengers they would have no problems flying, only to be contradicted by the airline’s airport employees who yelled at or otherwise humiliated those same passengers.
In the examples Van Cleave provides in the lawsuit, passengers had met requirements to travel with service animals.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as dogs trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities and requires they be allowed in all areas where the public can go. ADA rules apply only to trained service animals, not emotional-support or therapy animals that provide comfort through their presence.
Further, the ADA says only two questions can be asked of a person accompanied by a service animal. Is the dog required because of a disability? What task is the dog trained to perform?
In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that American Airlines had failed to sufficiently train reservation and gate agents in dealing with disabled individuals traveling with service dogs and ordered the airline to provide further training.